Disclosures: Manzanarez reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors' relevant financial disclosures.
December 08, 2021
2 min read

Family-centered nutrition can help kids with autism, study finds

Disclosures: Manzanarez reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors' relevant financial disclosures.
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Adopting family-centered nutrition programs can positively influence diet in children with autism, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

In an interview on the journal’s podcast, co-author Brenda Manzanarez, MS, RD, a dietitian in the department of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said that the study was partially inspired by a history of children with autism being excluded from such programming, even though they are more likely to have overweight or obesity.

“Historically, children with autism have been excluded from this type of programming that [is] usually developed for neurotypical kids,” Manzanarez said on the podcast. “We know that children with autism face higher challenges — health challenges, behavioral challenges — one of them being that they also have two to five times higher the rates of obesity than other kids. So in a way, we just kind of wanted to help this population who often lacks these specialized resources.”

In collaboration with a community health center in South Los Angeles, Manzanarez and colleagues adapted and implemented a nutrition and fitness program over the course of 6 weeks. The program consisted of one orientation and six weekly 90-minute classes attended by enrolled children and their parents.

“Each class was structured around four core elements: (1) family-centered nutrition education, (2) parent support, (3) physical activity, and (4) goal setting,” the authors wrote. “Each class began with a 20- to 30-minute parent and child joint lesson consisting of a particular nutrition focus and related strategies to support healthy eating, exercise, and overcoming barriers families of children with ASD face when making healthy lifestyle changes.”

Following the education lesson, parents engaged in discussion while children participated in guided crafts and physical activities that reinforced the concepts. Parents and children would then come back together to discuss a weekly goal and would keep track of these goals in provided logbooks.

“Families and staff expressed satisfaction; parents reported increased physical activity, fruit, and vegetable intake in their children,” Manzanarez and colleagues wrote. “Parents also desired continued learning and individualized recommendations.”

Most challenging, Manzanarez said, was retaining the participating families. Only about 26% of the originally enrolled cohort completed the program.

“Interestingly, we found that those who did complete the entire program had 100% attendance,” Manzanarez said. “So that kind of gave us hope as to continue trying different versions of this programming. The families voiced that they liked the program, that they liked seeing changes in their kids, specifically improving their eating habits and being more positive about having exercise as a form of movement.”

Manzanarez said that in light of the program’s success, her team would be piloting similar studies.

“We’ve already made some changes that we felt were needed to more successfully implement this,” Manzanarez said. “Over the summer, we conducted a parent focus group, just to better understand what the needs of these families with autism were and just to make sure that we're capturing what they want and what kinds of things that they expect out of this type of programming. And right now, we are almost at the end of implementing a 10-week series, all completely virtual with adolescents and young adults, along with their parents. So ultimately, we just hope that we have a curriculum that can reach a bigger audience, whether it will be virtually or in person, and just to make this program more accessible to more families.”


Family-centered nutrition influences diet behaviors for children with autism. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/936777?. Published Dec. 8, 2021. Accessed Dec. 8, 2021.

Family-centered nutrition influences diet behaviors for children with autism (AUDIO). Podcast. https://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/810098. Published Dec. 8, 2021. Accessed Dec. 8, 2021.