Before embarking on a casein-free diet, consult your child’s doctor. Because dairy products are one of the main sources of calcium in children, you’ll need to make sure the child’s diet has other good sources of calcium, and vitamin D, in order to meet their nutritional needs. Talk with your child’s doctor about whole foods, fortified foods (ie. calcium-enriched rice milk or coconut yogurt) and/or supplementation to avoid any nutritional deficiencies.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. Over 99 percent of the body’s calcium is found in bones and teeth. The skeleton serves as a reservoir of calcium for fundamental calcium-dependent functions throughout the body.
Apart from maintaining strong teeth and bones, calcium is essential for sending messages between cells and supporting tissues throughout the body. Calcium plays a major role in proper muscle function, nerve transmission and hormonal secretion. Since children with autism spectrum disorders commonly have low muscle tone, sensory integration issues and varying levels of anxiety, maintaining the proper level of circulating calcium is critical for the body to function at its best.
The body’s endocrine system—a system of glands that secrete hormones and provides a series of feedback mechanisms to the body, is charged with keeping calcium levels in check. The endocrine system includes a major role for calcitriol, the hormonal form of vitamin D, which is required for absorption of calcium in the small intestine. (Vitamin D post coming soon – learn about the importance of Vitamin D in this system and its link to Autism.)
Food Sources of Calcium
In the United States, an estimated 72 percent of calcium comes from milk, cheese and yogurt and from foods to which dairy products have been added (e.g., pizza, lasagna, dairy desserts). The remaining calcium comes from vegetables (7%); grains (5%); legumes (4 %); fruit (3%); meat, poultry, and fish (3%); eggs (2%); and miscellaneous foods (3%).
Since the casein-free diet requires removal of the foods that supply most of your child’s ingested calcium, I recommend you consult a licensed dietitian or nutritionist who can help tailor a menu to your child’s taste preferences as well as ensure that your child’s nutritional needs are being met.
Not all consumed calcium is absorbed once it enters the gut. Studies show that our intestines absorb about 30 percent of the calcium present in foods, and this varies with the type of food consumed. Therefore, to promote the best absorption, it is best to avoid processed foods and obtain vitamins and minerals from natural, whole foods.
The recommended daily allowance for children ages 1-3 is 700mg of calcium per day. Children 4-8 years old should take in 1000mg per day and children ages 9-18 should consume at least 1300mg per day. Based on those numbers, try to tailor your menu to include calcium-rich foods. Below are some examples foods high in calcium.
Kale (1 cup contains 180 mg)
Collard Greens (1 cup contains over 350 mg)
Turnip Greens (1 cup contains 250 mg)
Broccoli (1 cup contains 95 mg)
Raw fennel (1 medium bulb contains 115 mg)
Artichoke (1 medium artichoke contains 55 mg)
Blackberries (1 cup contains 40 mg)
Black Currants (1 cup contains 62 mg)
Oranges (1 orange contains between 50 and 60 mg)
Dried apricots (1/2 cup contains 35 mg)
Figs (1/2 cup contains 120 mg)
Dates (1/2 cup contains 35 mg)
Tempeh (1 cup contains 215 mg)
Amaranth (1 cup contains 275 mg)
Great northern beans (1 cup contains 120 mg)
Soybeans (1 cup contains 175 mg)
Adzuki beans (1 cup contains 65 mg)
Navy beans (1 cup contains 125 mg)
Blackstrap Molasses (2 tablespoons contains 400 mg)
Fortified non-dairy milk (ie. Almond, Soy, or Rice) (1 cup contains 200-300 mg)
Hemp milk (1 cup contains 460 mg)
Fortified orange juice (1 cup contains 300 mg)
Tahini (2 tablespoons contains 130 mg)
Almond butter (2 tablespoons contains 85 mg)
Roasted sesame seeds (1 oz. contains 35 mg)
If you don’t think your child is getting enough calcium from food sources, consider adding a calcium supplement. While excess intake of calcium is almost never due to calcium intake from foods, the use of calcium supplements could lead to excessive calcium intake as a result of improper dosing.
Because calcium plays a major role in virtually every cell in the body and interacts with a large number of other nutrients, too much calcium may give rise to a variety of adverse effects. That is why it is recommended that you consult your physician before implementing any supplementation for your child.
The most common forms of supplemental calcium are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Generally fewer tablets of calcium carbonate are required to achieve the desired dose, thus, costs tend to be lower with calcium carbonate than with calcium citrate. However, calcium carbonate is more often associated with side effects including constipation, flatulence, and bloating . If you choose calcium carbonate (which is also available as a chewable) monitor your child for those side effects.
When choosing supplements, make sure it is a casein-free formula. It should say so on the label. Select a form suited to your child’s age and abilities. Is it better to find a liquid, chewable tablet, capsule or powder?
Check the label to find out what kind of calcium the supplement contains. If the supplement contains calcium citrate, you can take it with or without food. If the supplement contains calcium carbonate, take it with food. Stomach acid produced while eating helps the absorption of calcium carbonate. It is also better to take calcium not at the same time as a multi-vitamin since some other minerals can interfere with calcium absorption.
Whatever supplement you choose, incorporate it into a schedule. For example, in our house, we take calcium in the evening after dinner. The routine helps us to remember to take it. Also, since calcium has been shown to help the brain use the amino acid tryptophan to manufacture the sleep-inducing substance melatonin, taking it in the evening hours helps prepare the body for a restful sleep.
This post is an excerpt from the ebook: E.A.T. An Italian Mother’s Guide to Going Casein-free in Autism Spectrum Disorders now available on Amazon.
National Research Council. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2011. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13050&page=R1
Vegan Sources of Calcium
Insomnia: Studies Confirm Calcium And Magnesium Effective http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/163169.php