Are Gluten-Free Diets Healthier for Kids?
Updated: Jul 15
Understanding gluten-free diets and what the research says about gluten in kids.
Let's talk about GLUTEN and clear up some misconceptions about this controversial nutrient, gluten. I got this question from a Mom who wanted to know..." what's the deal with gluten? Should I give it to my daughter or not?" Gluten has gotten a bad reputation to be the cause of all ailments. In fact, the gluten-free food market has skyrocketed in the last years and is now valued at 5.7 BILLON DOLLARS. As many as 30% of people in the US are on a gluten-free diet when, in fact, only 1%-2% of them may really need to be. People have been switching to a gluten free-diet, thinking it might help with weight loss, treat autism or even help with mood and kids' behavior when there is little to no research data supporting these claims.
So what is gluten anyway?
Have you ever had a piece of soft, chewy, delicious bread🍞 🥖? Guess what: THAT'S GLUTEN for you. Gluten is a group of proteins found in grains, wheat, barley, rye, and some oats. It essentially is what gives bread & pasta the chewiness & elasticity.
For most kids, Gluten is totally harmless, EXCEPT in the case of those with Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Who should follow a gluten-free diet?
The only reason your child should go on a GLUTEN free diet is if your child is diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks its own tissues and is triggered by GLUTEN. In kids with celiac disease, gluten damages the small intestine and affects its ability to absorb nutrients from food. If this happens, a child can become malnourished.
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, occurs in about 1% of the population. It is diagnosed with blood tests and biopsy. Symptoms can vary and include: diarrhea, weight loss, skin rashes. However, many kids may have NO symptoms at all. Here is when it can get complicated. Many kids might not have any symptoms, and we know that gluten sensitivities and celiac disease are still underdiagnosed. As many as 30-60% of kids might not show any symptoms at all. The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, but there are regional variations and genetic predisposition. Interestingly, one study showed higher rates of celiac disease in zip codes with higher income. One theory to explain this is that lower-income kids might be more exposed to certain bacteria that can actually protect them. The good news is that Celiac can be treated by eliminating gluten from the diet.
I recently heard a fantastic episode in Freakonomics where they talk in-depth about the demonization of gluten. When the top Celiac doctor in the world, Dr. Alessandro Fasano, openly says he eats gluten, it should say something!
Is a gluten-free diet healthier?
No! Just because it says GLUTEN FREE does not mean it's better nutritionally. On the contrary, many gluten-free products can be higher in calories and lower in fiber because they lack the whole grain found in wheat. Plus, many Gluten-Free foods need to add other ingredients like fat and sugar to enhance the taste. Not to mention gluten-free foods are so much more expensive compared to gluten-containing foods.
What does the research say?
A new study published in the journal Pediatrics (2020) found the early introduction of high doses of gluten may actually prevent celiac disease. Infants 4-6 months of age were introduced age-appropriate forms of gluten in the form of wheat-based cereal biscuits. The results showed that children who delayed gluten after 6 months of age had a higher celiac prevalence at 3yrs of age. Compared to the children who introduced gluten early on, they had no cases of celiac disease. The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, but there are regional variations and genetic predisposition. The only treatment is eliminating gluten from the diet.
Gluten is a protein found in foods like bread, pasta & wheat, making bread chewy and satisfying.
Gluten is not a villain. There is no need to eliminate it, except in kids with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Some Gluten-free foods may lack fiber and b12 vitamins found in whole grains.
Early introduction of wheat in the form of cereal, grains & crackers may actually prevent celiac disease.