Mezzanine chef/owner Todd Johnson prepares a meal with Kati Hornung and her daughter, Zoë. Photo by Jay Paul
Ellwood Thompson's Local Market and Mezzanine chef/owner Todd Johnson recently came together to prepare something a bit out of the ordinary — food for a Virginia Commonwealth University pilot study. Funded through a VCU internal grant program, the study investigated the effects of diet in the treatment of two children with autism.
"There are a large number of parent testimonials that claim diets have cured their kids of autism," principal investigator Austin Mulloy says. The former professor in the university's Department of Special Education and Disability Policy led the study, which included a developmental pediatrician, two psychologists and VCU students working alongside community members. "Because it's so far-fetched and because the diets are so popular, I've become interested in producing some scientific documentation of their effects."
The subjects of the study, two boys ages 4 and 7, ate a gluten-free, high-fat, high-vegetable diet for 18 weeks. As the study chef, Johnson prepared dishes such as beef-liver meatballs, goat yogurt and puréed chicken thighs in the Mezzanine kitchen using food donated by Ellwood Thompson's.
"The idea is that the state of someone's gut is a primer for behavior, so by alleviating problems in the gut, we're removing a precursor to problem behavior," Mulloy says.
Proponents of the diet say that children with autism have "bad bacteria" that feed off carbohydrates and excrete toxic by-products of digestion.
Kati Hornung, a study co-investigator who delivered meals to the boys' families, believes that following the diet for 2 1/2 years helped to heal her daughter, Zoë, who is starting kindergarten this fall. "I'm not the only mom who would say I recovered my child, and diet was a huge component of that," she says.
Experts in the field are dubious, however, saying that the available evidence does not support anecdotal claims. Since the study only involved two children and didn't include a control group, it was not designed to reach definitive conclusions.
"We try to focus on what's been proven to work for more than just a couple families," says Casey Gold, operations manager for the Autism Science Foundation. "We tend to focus on what is backed by evidence-based science, [and] there is no concrete proof as of yet that supports that the change in diet will change the diagnosis of autism."
Preliminary results indicate that the diet brought about a mild reduction in challenging behavior. Midway through the pilot study, both children were able to stop taking MiraLax, a laxative that helps with bowel regularity, and one of the children stopped taking sleeping pills.
"Our hypothesis is that the kids are more comfortable because they're not in a state of constipation, and as a result, the tasks that are being placed upon them are less aversive," Mulloy says, but he is quick to add that the children were not cured of their autism. In the upcoming months, Mulloy and a VCU doctoral student will conduct data analysis and hope to publish the study results in a scientific journal sometime next year. If the findings are positive, Mulloy will conduct a similar study at Pennsylvania State University, where he is now an assistant professor.
Regardless of the results, Johnson and Ellwood Thompson's say they were happy to contribute their resources.
"If it might help, I'm for it," says Becky Crump, Ellwood Thompson's marketing director.
For Johnson, the time spent in the kitchen preparing meals and leading cooking classes with the families was worth it.
"I've always believed in food healing the body," he says. "It's wonderful that a place like Richmond can be a leader in some of these studies."