Pete Evans says a paleo diet can prevent autism. He's wrong

Pete Evans has launched an attack on the Heart Foundation and the Dietitians Association of Australia.
Pete Evans has launched an attack on the Heart Foundation and the Dietitians Association of Australia. Photo: Supplied

To say that celebrity chef Pete Evans is a paleo evangelist is putting it mildly. He has a paleo cookbook, and sings the praises of the 'caveman diet' on his Facebook page in lengthy daily updates.

Until now the public image of Evans has been of an attractive foodie personality who incites eye rolls by telling people to activate their almonds. Fruity, but probably benign.

But over the last few weeks Evans has stepped up his criticism of modern diets, slamming the Heart Foundation and calling for the cancellation of the 'Healthy Tick' program.

He then really went out on a limb, and in a 2,100 word Facebook diatribe, accused the Heart Foundation and Dietitians Association of Australia of colluding in creating national dietary guidelines which cause autism.

Wait, what? A sample of the post reads:

"Why is Australia fast becoming the most obese and unhealthy nations on earth?

Is this because we are a nation of self obsessed, weak minded people with no self control? No. Is it because we are a nation that for far too long has been told to steer clear of foods naturally high in fat, which naturally trigger our fullness hormone, and instead told to eat 6 - 8 servings of processed carbohydrate a day, and wonder why we are still hungry after eating 3 cups of rice or 6 slices of bread?

Why has our rate of autism jumped from 1 in 10000 children in 1974, to 1 in 50 in 2014, where do you think it will be in another 40 years if it is escalating at this rate? This has grown rapidly since the guidelines have been in place!

Why is the rate of mental illness including dementia and Alzheimer's escalating at a frightening rate and we are told by the DAA and Heart Foundation to avoid saturated fat when this is what our brains need to survive and function properly."

Wow. They are some big statements to make. Let's unpack those claims one by one.

While Evans claims autism rates in children are one in 50, autism organisations say the actual figure for 2014 is one in 100.

Evans seems to be saying that eating low fat foods and too many carbohydrates has caused autism rates to soar. As we know, autism signs can be recognised in babies as young as six months – when they are only just starting solids. That just doesn't make sense, unless he is claiming that mothers have caused their children to develop autism by eating bread in pregnancy. The latter is an upsetting and offensive allegation to make.

Then there's the question of whether autism rates are really increasing that much. It is being diagnosed much more frequently, but this is largely due to better awareness. It is a positive change as early intervention is vital, and now more parents can access that sooner.

There's also the issue of whether it is right to use autism as a scare tactic. There is a growing neurodiversity movement which argues that people with labels such as 'autism' are not disabled and don't need a cure – they are just wired differently.

Whatever way you look at it, there's one thing that experts agree on: there is no single known cause of the condition.

Professor Cheryl Dessanayake has been researching autism for 30 years, and she recently told the Women's Weekly that "there is absolutely no evidence that diet is the cause of autism."

"Throwaway lines can be damaging because parents will try anything to help their children," she said.

Professor Dessanayake said that while some parents do see improvements in autistic children after changing their diet, it's thought to be related to existing stomach problems. 

"A number of children with autism do have gastrointestinal issues, so diet may improve that. And then, because they are no longer in pain, their behaviour may improve," she said.

Of course, claiming that autism symptoms can be improved with diet is nothing new.

In 1965, Dr Benjamin Feingold invented a diet low in processed foods to treat hyperactivity and learning problems. The Autism Research Institute has been advocating a gluten and dairy free diet for autism since the 1990s. But despite much anecdotal evidence in support of the program, repeated scientific reviews have found evidence of the diet's efficacy limited and weak.

There's a saying that goes, "If you've met a child with autism, you've met ONE child with autism." I don't have a child with autism, nor am I any sort of expert, but my research and conversations with families who are have a child on the spectrum suggest that all individuals experience and express the condition differently. Some families have success with certain forms of treatment, diet and early intervention; others don't.

This is the main problem I have with Evans' comments. He lumps autism, mental illness, MS and Alzheimer's together, and suggests there is one magic bullet for all of these often devastating conditions: paleo.

It not only provides false hope for families, but ignores the main, proven treatment for autism spectrum disorder: Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). Three decades of research have demonstrated the effectiveness of ABA principles for children with autism. Teaching techniques based on ABA have been shown to significantly improve the abilities of children with autism to learn and develop a range of new skills.

Unfortunately ABA is not trendy, artisanal or even activated. It doesn't have celebrity ambassadors and can't be sold in a cookbook. Instead, ABA involves up to 25 hours of intensive learning sessions a week, for years. It's very expensive and underfunded, yet can achieve remarkable results, as displayed by the Rogerson family on Australian Story earlier this month.

While it's clear that Pete Evans is passionate about healthy living and no doubt means well, he is not a paediatrician, or even a nutritionist or dietitian. He is a chef, health coach and TV personality. So why should we believe his extreme views and remove vital food groups from our children's diets over the advice from those more qualified?

The expert consensus is that putting the family on a paleo diet won't 'cure' autism; evidence is shaky that it will have any benefit at all. Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton has cautioned that the high intake of meat in some paleo diets could lead to cancer and heart disease. The National Heart Foundation warns that following a paleo diet could lead to people missing out on vital nutrients, although it does like that the diet limits salt and encourages people to eat plenty of seafood, vegetables and nuts. 

There is perhaps a middle ground between a system which puts 'Ticks' on foods such as highly processed frozen pizzas and sugary cereals and a diet fad which advocates the elimination of grains, dairy and legumes from our meals.

As dietitian and blogger Marnie Nitschke wrote on her blog 'Life is a Minestrone', it's time to start talking about nutrition "without the sweeping generalisations and one-size fits all perspective."

"Let's encourage a back-to basics, cut-the-crap approach, without demonising foods we've been cultivating and eating without incident for centuries. Let's ditch the Facebook slinging match, the before and after shots, and the contest for most number of 'likes' and 'shares'.

"And while we're at it, how about accepting that as powerful as our diet is, it is not the cure for every disease or disorder under the sun."

That sounds likes sensible advice to this mum.

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