Our bodies are incredible machines that are fueled by the foods we eat. Think of your body as a car and the food you eat as the gasoline. To be healthy and keep your body running smoothly, you’ll want to put the best fuel in the tank. For our bodies the best fuel is foods that are packed with vitamins and minerals, and contain healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates. These things are called nutrients and they have many important jobs within the body. If we do not eat enough of these nutrients, our bodies won’t work as well and we can become sick. For example, anemia, scurvy, or rickets are diseases that can occur from not eating enough foods with iron, vitamin C, or vitamin D. A diet low in calcium and vitamin D can also put you at risk for osteoporosis, which is a disease that causes bones to become weak and break easily. These are just a few examples, but there are many other diseases that can be prevented by eating a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and low-fat protein. These foods are recommended because they have everything our bodies need to be healthy, and not a lot of the bad stuff that can cause problems within our body. Imagine the car engine again, after years of only using the best gasoline (a healthy diet) your engine will be clean, run smoothly, and last longer but if you often use fuel with a lot of toxins (also known as “bad stuff”) the engine will become dirty, have to go to the shop often for repairs, and not last as long. It’s important to keep our bodies running smoothly by eating healthy foods. Here are some handouts with tips about giving your body the fuel it needs: Eat More of These Foods, Make Half Your Grains Whole, Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables.

Dietary Recommendations

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released new dietary guidelines for Americans in 2010 (link: These dietary guidelines were made so that people know what and how much to eat to be healthy. Here are some handouts with the recommendations for adults ages 18-30, 31-50, and 51+.

Special Conditions

These dietary guidelines are recommended for most people except those cannot follow them because of food allergies, intolerances, metabolic disorders, and other conditions. For these people a special diet should developed with a registered dietitian. There are also some developmental disabilities and syndromes that require individualized recommendations, such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, and Spina Bifida. Many people with these conditions have nutrition problems related to altered growth, different calorie requirements, constipation or diarrhea, and feeding problems. In these cases a registered dietitian should be consulted.

Requirements for Adults with Autism

Some, but not all, people with autism may have issues that affect their nutritional status such as strong food dislikes or only eating a limited number of foods. Eating a limited number of foods can put you at nutritional risk if you are not getting everything your body needs to be healthy. There is not one specific nutrition issue among all people with autism, nor is there a special diet for all people with autism. The USDA guidelines apply to people with autism unless a condition exists that prevents you from eating a certain food or food group. In cases where a food cannot be eaten due to a medical reason or a strong dislike, a good rule of thumb is to find out what nutrients are in the food you don’t eat and replace it with another source of the that nutrient. For example, milk is a great source of calcium, which is an important nutrient that our body needs. If you are not able to consume milk you should replace it with another food that has calcium such as yogurt or green leafy vegetables. If there are many foods you don’t eat and are worried you’re not getting all the nutrients you need, a registered dietitian should be consulted to create a personalized nutrition plan for you.

For extremely picky eaters especially children, two treatments have been developed to increase food acceptance and willingness to try new foods, they are:

Sequential Oral Sensory (SOS) Feeding Therapy
More info can be found on the Easter Seals website:

Food Chaining
The most comprehensive resource on the topic is a book called, Food Chaining: The Proven 6-step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet


Another nutritional concern among some people with autism is that certain prescribed medications may change how quickly or slowly your body functions, which can cause weight-gain or weight loss. Medications such as Olanzapine (Zyprexa) and Risperidone (Risperdal) are sometimes prescribed for people with autism and can cause increased appetite and weight gain. Some medications can also have the opposite effect, causing decreased appetite and weight loss. These medications are Methylphenidate (Concerta) and Atomoxetine (Strattera), which are usually prescribed for symptoms of ADHD. If you are on one of the medications you might need to change your diet if you notice weight gain or weight loss.


Obesity is a serious issue for a growing number of Americans, including people with disabilities. Obesity increases the risk for many health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and joint problems. These health problems can affect not only a person’s physical health, but also their mental health, mobility, social engagement, independence, and mortality. Some studies looking at obesity among children and adolescents with autism suggest that obesity rates may be as high or higher than they are among typically developing children and adolescents. Few studies have been done to determine the rates of obesity specifically among adults with autism. The best way to protect against obesity and weight gain is by following the USDA guidelines and getting regular physical activity. Below are some tips for staying at a healthy weight.

A. Eating the Right Amount
We live in a super-sized world where a bag of chips is no longer a single serving and most restaurant meals are large enough to feed 2-3 people. Eating larger portions means that we eat more calories and eating more calories than our body needs leads to weight gain. Here are some tips to help you eat just the right amount:

  • Portion out the amount of food you would like to eat for a snack instead of eating straight from the bag. This is especially important when you’re eating in front of the TV. People are more likely to overeat if they’re paying attention to TV and not how many chips they’ve eaten.
  • Eat when you’re hungry, even if it’s before a meal. Choose healthy snacks between meals so that when dinnertime rolls around, you’re not so hungry that you overeat or make an unhealthy choice (like choosing the bacon cheeseburger over the grilled chicken sandwich). So, go ahead and spoil your dinner!
  • When eating out, remember you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. Most restaurant portions are much too large. If you are worried about wasting food, you can always ask for a container to save your leftovers.
  • Listen to your body. Eat only when you are hungry and eat until you are satisfied.

Here is a great handout that shows how you can use your hand and common objects to decide how much to eat: Avoid Oversize Portions.

B. Rethink Your Drink
Another way people consume too many calories is through regularly drinking soda, juice, sports drinks, and other sugary beverages. These drinks provide a lot of sugar and calories, and have very little nutrition. These excess calories can lead to weight gain. In fact, cutting out just 1 can (12 oz) of regular soda per day can lead to noticeable weight loss over 6 to 12 months. Here’s a handout that will give you some tips for drinking more water and less sugar: Nothing Refreshes Like a Glass of Water.


Additional Web-based Resources:

Recommended Print Resources:

Kara Kuresman
Shannon O’Brien
Leslie Stiles, MS, RD, LDN


  • Marks B, Sisirak J, Heller T. (2010) Health Matters: The Exercise and Nutrition Health Education for People with Developmental Disabilities. Chicago. Brookes Publishing.
  • Tyler CV, Schramm SC, Karafa M, Tang AS, and Jain AK (2011) Chronic disease risks in young adults with autism spectrum disorder: Forewarned is forearmed. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: September 2011, Vol. 116, No. 5, pp. 371-380.
  • Van Riper, C. (2010) Position of the American Dietetic Association: Providing nutrition services for people with developmental disabilities and special health care needs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 110, Issue 2, February 2010, Pages 296-307
  • Humphries K, Traci MA, and Seekins T (2009) Nutrition and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities: systematic literature review results. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: June 2009, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 163-185.
  • How to Avoid Portion Size Pitfalls to Help Manage Your Weight. (2011). Retrieved March 29, 2012, from
  • Rethink Your Drink. (2011). Retrieved March 29, 2012, from