Junk Food Addiction in Teens on the Autism Spectrum

"My teenage son with high functioning autism has (in my opinion) the absolute worse eating habits ...honestly, potato chips and soda make up about 75% of his diet. He would rather lose game privileges than eat a vegetable. I've given up! Help!!"

We all know that adolescents need to eat well since their bodies are still growing, their brains are still changing, and their hormones may be taking a toll on their moods and energy levels. But we also know that adolescents are prone to eating irregularly, and sometimes quite poorly, particularly as they distance themselves from parental controls and eat more meals away from home.

Pizza, cookies, ice cream, and soft drinks may be the most common foods in their diets at this age. But we have more influence and capacity to affect our adolescents' diets positively than we may think we do. The keys to positive change in the arena of diet and nutrition are positive attitude, planning, and preparation. These keys are already in your hands.

Moms and dads have a particularly strong advantage in this arena because, generally speaking, they have higher incomes than adolescents, and adolescents would rather spend more of their incomes on clothing, music, movies, and other entertainment, and as little as possible on food. Adolescents with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), are not much different; the only real difference may be that appropriate diet and nutrition may be even more important to help them keep improving their social skills and relations with peers and grown-ups.

Even slight worsening of moods, or additional absent-mindedness due to low blood sugar from skipping a meal, may cause an adolescent with HFA to fall into difficulties in important social situations. Once he or she has created a "social storm," such as a rift with a friend, or opposition to a teacher, the “special needs” adolescent often has more trouble than other adolescents navigating the troubled waters and reaching a safe shore.
==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Using the keys to positive change in the arena of your adolescent's diet and nutrition is not difficult. Here are some examples of simple and direct changes parents can make:

Positive Attitude—

Most of us yearn to have peace at the dinner table and in the home; we would like to provide healthy food, and have our kids eat it with appreciation and without complaints. Yet we may forget that a positive attitude about food has to begin with us.

In many countries and cultures of the world, kids and adolescents are only too glad to have enough food to eat each day. In much of Africa, families still eat all their meals together, and in rural areas there is generally a single bowl of food, a grain or root starch with a vegetable sauce that young and old family members share. Meat is often more of a luxury, or may be offered only in small quantities. Soft drinks and sugary desserts are luxury items, and a regular component of the diet only for relatively wealthy people.

In the United States, by contrast, we often have too much food, and paradoxically, much of it is not healthy or nutritious. Adolescents complain about the food provided for them, and may refuse to eat, or don't eat well at prepared meals with their families, because they have a confusing array of other choices. They often do not view making daily decisions about what is and is not nutritious as their job, and they shouldn't; it is the job of the grown-ups in the community, whether at home or at school, to guide adolescents to eat wisely by providing nutritious food, and by limiting the supply of non-nutritious foods available.

At the same time, eating together is one of the most affirming and basic family-building activities possible; it also links us to other human beings in our own community and other communities; it is one activity that we all have in common, no matter what culture we are from. Our first job, therefore, is to return a sense of pleasure and even joy to family mealtimes, and to eating in general, if it isn't already there. Our second job is to plan for food that is appropriately nutritious, even planning some meals with our adolescents. And our third job is to prepare the food with a calm attitude and with thoughtful attention to the needs of our adolescents, whether it be for portable meals, late-night snacks, or a constant supply of pocket-sized nutritious energy-boosters.

Here are several ways to keep positive attitudes circulating in your home:
  1. Ask family members what their favorite dinners are, and either prepare those meals yourself or allow them to prepare those meals, once a week.
  2. Do not make meal times a time to criticize or moralize; try to open the conversation to everyone, and avoid topics that exclude some people, or are boring for kids or teenagers. In some households, family members are allowed to call out, "Not of general interest!" when inappropriate or boring dinnertime conversation topics are introduced.
  3. Get family members to take turns helping to set the table creatively with attractive, even unusual, centerpieces or decorations. Some of these may even help generate conversation with ordinarily quite adolescents.
  4. Offer only nutritious foods at mealtimes. Try to buy as many fresh foods as possible, and use color contrasts to make the meal appeal to the artist in your son or daughter.
  5. Start each meal together, at the table, and wait for everyone to be there. It helps to share a moment of silent appreciation, a chosen quote, or a prayer if you are so inclined. Let all family members take turns choosing the opening.
  6. Try music and candlelight for a change. Ask your HFA teenager to choose some quiet music that he or she especially likes.

Planning and Preparation—

Turning your kitchen into a generator of good nutrition and better eating habits may feel like a monumental task, but it is entirely manageable if broken down into tasks that only take an hour or less:
  1. Based on your family's list of favorite meals, and the cook's preferences, create a new grocery list featuring fresh foods and non-sugar foods for the main meals.
  2. Go through the refrigerator and the pantry shelves and gradually reduce and eliminate unhealthy foods. These include those foods whose primary ingredient is sugar (i.e., the first ingredient on the label), and foods with artificial ingredients, including preservatives and artificial coloring. Get rid of all soft drinks. Extra salty or fatty foods should also be limited, but these are more problematic for adult health; adolescents can handle some salty, fatty foods because of their higher activity levels. Then don't buy unhealthy foods anymore. If anyone asks, you can tell them you can't afford them. Having to buy these foods themselves will immediately reduce your adolescents' need for them.
  3. Rotate cooking duties. Cooking is a practical skill and art form that all adolescents should master early in life. An adolescent with HFA may especially appreciate feeling self-confident serving tasty food he or she has prepared to friends and family.
  4. Provide some snack foods, portable foods, and quick meals. These in-between food sources are often the culprits in poor nutrition and diet, however, so it is crucial to look closely at ingredients, and change the foods that are available whenever you determine that the current offerings are unhealthy. Make sure that you provide a continual supply of a variety of these meal alternatives, or your adolescent will resort to relying on vending machines and friends; neither source can be relied upon for solely healthy and nutritious food!
  5. See how many canned or already prepared foods you can replace with fresh foods. These foods are often a hidden source of unwanted sugars, preservatives, and other chemical additives that can actually damage your family's health. Try the local health food store for spaghetti sauce and other sauces and dressings free of chemistry experiments; farmer's markets often have homemade jams, hot sauces, pesto, flavored honey, herb vinegars and other specialties. Check the local bakeries for bread; often bakeries sell their day-old bread at a significant discount - and it is still a lot fresher than what you will find at the grocery store!
  6. Pay special attention to breakfast foods. You may have to woo your adolescent to the breakfast table, but it is worth the effort. Breakfast is still the most important meal of the day for regulating energy levels, brain power, and moods.
  7. Preparing food should be a happy, not a harassed, activity. Have a rule in your house that the cook gets to choose the music or radio program while preparing meals, and others are in the kitchen at the same time only if they are contributing to a positive atmosphere.
  8. Whoever does the majority of the cooking in the family should consider what foods he or she enjoys the most, and should check out a few cookbooks featuring their favorite foods from the library. A happy and inspired cook makes good food; inspiring food makes better mealtimes and better nutrition possible.
Quick and Easy Snacks—

Simple examples of healthy snack foods include:
  • apples and peanut butter
  • carrots
  • celery
  • cheese and wholegrain crackers
  • cherry tomatoes and Ranch dressing
  • fruit/nut mixes (e.g., peanuts and raisins)
  • granola or homemade granola bars
  • quick breads and muffins made from scratch
  • whole yogurt with fresh fruit and honey
  • yogurt and fruit "smoothies" made in the blender

Portable foods need to be hard, or in a hard container, so that they are not squashed and unappetizing by the time your adolescent gets around to remembering to eat them. Apples and granola bars are a good start; sometimes try beef, elk, venison or bison jerky from friends who make their own jerky, and more farmers and ranchers are starting to offer these products for sale.

Find a healthy cookie recipe. Using whatever basic chocolate chip cookie recipe your family prefers, cut the sugar by one-quarter cup, and substitute one-half cup quick oats for one-half cup of the flour required. Add chopped nuts, and even coconut flakes, if you prefer. Use real butter rather than margarine. Making a variation of these cookies each week, and filling the cookie jar will provide a more nutritious treat than store-bought cookies.

Quick meals should be meals that HFA adolescents can cook for themselves in the afternoon after school, or late at night when returning from an evening out, or if they are up late studying. Provide instruction in how to prepare basic pasta, and then make sure that a variety of interesting pasta shapes and sauces are readily available and that your adolescent knows how to find the necessary ingredients and pots and pans by him or herself. Egg-based meals are another example. Make sure that your adolescent knows how to prepare basic scrambled eggs, omelets, fried or poached eggs, hard-boiled eggs, and French toast. With just these two basic food sources in his or her cooking repertoire, your adolescent can create a dozen different healthy meals.

Rather than using direct praise for positive changes in your adolescent's eating habits (which may feel too intrusive or excessive for what he or she will rightly regard as a very basic part of life), ask your adolescent to cook for the family (e.g., "You’re really a good cook; can I get you to cook for everyone one night this week?"). This question will make your adolescent feel both self-confident, and needed. For an adolescent with HFA, these are the marks of growing into adulthood and family membership as the contributing person that he or she wants to be deep down.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD



•    Anonymous said... Wow. This is great info. Keep sharing people. This sounds like my 12yr old son. It's so hard changing his behavioral issues:(
•    Anonymous said... That's not just your opinion. That IS the worst kind of diet. But I don't understand this sort of "problem" when I see it. My son has Asperger's and would prefer to eat cookies and pancakes (or anything with syrup!) 24/7. My solution? I don't let him. Don't BUY potato chips and soda. Set an example as the parent and don't eat/drink that garbage either. Explain the importance of eating well. He is high-functioning so he can grasp that. Slowly introduce new foods. Find what he likes and buy more and more of it and find different, healthier way to prepare it. Example: my son loved/loves McDonald's chicken nuggets. I told him they're garbage and okay for a "treat" but not all the time. Started buying frozen chicken nuggets at home. Then evolved to making them fresh. Then started preparing different chicken dishes breading the chicken and baking it. Find what he likes, spin off that. SLOWLY incorporate new things and make sure you're eating them - and enthusiastically - too.
•    Anonymous said... My daughter is 10 and has always had severe food issues since she was a toddler. Most of it is texture related. The absolute hardest thing about her eating issues is that no matter how much we teach her about how good food is and she understands what is good for the body and what is not, she refuses to eat at all lately. So the heartless and flippant and totally typical "advice" that kids will eat when they are hungry enough doesn't work so well when you have a child with mental/social issues such as this. The food issues are SERIOUS in many kids with Autism, and for parents who ae trying so hard and unable to convince their kids to eat right it is heart breaking. I have tried the vitamin route but I know she isn't getting enough nutrition. She battles frequent and severe constipation. Going glucose free hasn't helped much. She will eat crackers, raw broccoli florets (rarely), carrots, a few select types of nuts, apple juice, and that's about it. I used to be able to get her to eat cheese, apples, strawberries, yogurt, those horrible chicken nuggets (the only meat i've ever gotten her to willingly eat), and macaroni. I know we will have to have some psychiatric help or my child will starve herself. But there are only a precious few child psychiatrists in my state that will accept the insurance plan we have. Our appts are 6 months apart. TELL ME HOW THE HELL I AM SUPPOSED TO GET HELP FOR MY CHILD WHO WON'T EAT?! If you haven't experienced this problem with your own kid, then you just don't have a clue what it is like.
•    Anonymous said... my 5 yr old son w/Asperger & SPD just finished 6 weeks of therapy for feeding. In the beginning, he only ate crackers, cookies, dry cereal, french fries & he drank chocolate milk, juice & Pedia Sure. After therapy, he now eats just about everything!! Spaghetti, Soup, Roast beef, squash, broccoli, greens, okra, etc.!! His therapist explained her method as:: Use a "social story". Read before each meal or every bite. Use a divider plate (3-5) separate compartments. Only put 2-5 small (baby spoon) bites in each compartment. The food consists of 1 favorite, 1 sort of likes & 1-2 new foods. He chooses which food to start with, but he has to take a bite of each food. Also, my son did better in the beginning when we ate alone!! Other family members at the table were distracting & our efforts failed!!! After 4 weeks of eating alone or w/me, now he eats w/all of us!! The short social story is:: It's time to eat, so I can grow!! The foods on my plate will help me grow tall and be strong. I may see foods I have not eaten before. This is ok. I won't know what it tastes like unless I take a bite and try it. After I take a bite, then I will know if it is yummy or not. After I take a bite, and if I don't like it, it will be ok to say "No Thank You, I don't like it". But I have to take a bite to know for sure. I'm ready to grow taller & be strong! Then begin! FYI: don't start out with strong smelling foods (cabbage, greens, etc), this may stall your efforts. We began w/ (new) chicken & dumplings-2 bites, (loves)yogurt- 2 bites & (sort of likes) green beans-2 bites. He realized he loves the dumplings & wanted more than 2 bites!! Some foods were not as sucessful, but many are!!! Even though therapy has ended, we will continue using the social story therapy @ home until he is more comfortable without it!! I don't want any set-backs!! Good luck to you all!!
•    Anonymous said... If you don't buy it he can't eat it. Someone has to be the parent. All kids would live on junk food if they had the option, Aspergers or not! I have sat with my son and made a list with him of the vegetables that he can tolerate and also how he prefers them cooked (baked, mashed, stif-fry), and that is what i serve him. He is happy with that because he is not served the ones he really hates. It is also easy to hide vegies in things like meatloaf, rissoles, soups, spag bol. Grate or even blend once cooked. You may find that removing junk food from their diet will help with behavioural issues too.
•    Anonymous said... I totally understand. We have stopped trying to make our son eat vegies and just started making sure he takes a multi-vitamin everyday. Its so much easier. You have to pick your battles and this is one we have decided not to fight.
•    Anonymous said... I told my son about the dangers of aspartame and he cut it totally out of his diet once he realised it was bad for his brain, his moods have improved and he''s developed a sort of obsession with apples, he'll eat 10 in one go if they're there (because once he starts with the eating he doesn't seem able to stop) I found forbidding or persuading just didn't work, so I decided to inform him (a knowledge of neuroscience has helped) he seems keen to take more control of his eating, and I find empowering him makes everyones life easier x
•    Anonymous said... I feel for you. Not everyone's situation is the same. If it were so easy for all of us JUST to prohibit it, I am sure you would have by now. It doesn't always have to do with having "sense" either. The advise that someone will eat when they get hungry enough is pretty scary too. I think the best suggestions are the ones that are cautious and respectful. That is what we are supposed to be modeling. Empowering with knowledge is fantastic! Don't forget to surround yourself with understanding/supportive people. It is really hard to accomplish better eating habits when you don't have positive support.
•    Anonymous said... Good to see other people have some sense. I read the question and thought "well, stop buying poisonous garbage. problem solved."
•    Anonymous said... Don't keep the soda & chips in the house. He can't eat what he doesn't have access to & he will eventually get hungry enough to eat what's in the house.
•    Anonymous said... I can speak from experience... My son is 1 month GFCF and he's a totally different kid. He's 14 and has always had bowel issues. This has completely gone away. His skin has cleared up. He's less stinky and greasy. He is sleeping much better!! I think there's something to it for sure! Also, I've noticed his anxiety has lessened... And he's about to start his first year of high school!
•    Anonymous said... I don't buy those things or keep them in the house. At that age you can't prevent him from getting them. All your can do is explain that those things aren't foods and will harm his body and then lead by example and hope for the best. My twelve year is the same way in that he will choose the least healthy food he has access to. frown emoticon
•    Anonymous said... My 15 year old son is the same way. He would eat pop tarts, and rolls with cream cheese all day everyday if I allowed it. He is very limited in what he eats. He will eat chicken cutlet if it's breaded or a burger. But he won't go near a vegetable or fruit. He doesn't eat in school either, even if he skips breakfast. He would sooner go hungry . I have tried refusing to let him have those things but... I have seen him make himself sick rather then eat. At that point we talked to dr and now just try to change what he eats and use vitamins but reality of it is. I'm in the same boat as you with me son.. I use a little trick though... I hide veggies in things I can bake like if I make chocolate chip muffin. He will eat those ..
•    Anonymous said... My son is same way. Junk food all the time. We found out awhile back, he also has RAD (reactive attachment disorder), in which the patient's symptoms is of craving sugar/sugary products....
•    Anonymous said... Our 16 year old would live on Raman and diet coke if we let her
•    Anonymous said... This is normal.our sons just like this.we try to get him to eat different things but its effortless.he will go all day at school and be hungry and not eat all day if its not his foods.his passion to not eat things is greater than the hunger.we have to limit his chips and we make him drink water but he would live like that forever we get tired of fighting but keep trying.
•    Anonymous said... We discovered dairy sent our son hyperactive, much calmer without it.

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