While the 2000s had carbs, the 2010s diet enemy appears to be gluten. When celebrities and health experts started speaking out about celiac disease and gluten intolerance, some people hopped on the bandwagon and decided to go “gluten-free.” Many of these people were parents who also committed to raising their children without gluten. But is this safe? Does real scientific data back up a gluten-free diet in a child who does not suffer from diagnosed celiac disease or gluten intolerance?
In a word: no.
Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in foods such as wheat, barley, and rye. Food manufacturers did not create gluten in a laboratory, although they do add it to certain foods, including salad dressing and even French fries, to enhance flavor.
An estimated one in 133 people experience an autoimmune disease known as celiac disease. This condition causes inflammation as a result of exposure to gluten. The body views gluten as a “foreign invader,” much like a flu or cold virus, and releases antibodies to attack the gluten. Unfortunately, this can result in unpleasant intestinal symptoms as well as body aches and pains.
Eating a gluten-free diet has been promoted as a way to reduce conditions such as ADHD, autism, and more. It’s important to understand there is no conclusive data showing this is true. A 2014 review of all the existing studies to date by the Journal of Child Neurology found there were no high-quality, large studies showing a link between reduction in autism symptoms and a gluten-free diet. The researchers recommended that parents of autistic children shouldn’t avoid a gluten-free diet unless the child has been diagnosed with an intolerance or allergy.
Challenges of going gluten-free
While it might not seem like much to worry about, going gluten-free can pose significant lifestyle and social challenges for a child. Picture this: your child is at a friend’s birthday party and cupcakes or cookies are going around, but he has to refrain due to a gluten-free diet. At school, your child has to bring a “special” lunch or skip out on class snacks because of a gluten-free diet. This can cause a sense of frustration and even social isolation for a child who does not have a medical need to eat a gluten-free diet.
Additionally, many gluten-containing foods contain key nutrients your child may miss by eating a strictly gluten-free diet, especially B vitamins. Many gluten-containing cereals and breads are enriched with important vitamins and minerals, such as iron. Gluten-free foods, on the other hand, may not contain the typical nutrients found in their gluten-containing counterparts, due to removal of gluten. Children with gluten sensitivities may have to take vitamins or supplements to maintain their nutritional status.
Lastly, gluten-free foods do not necessarily equal “health” foods. Gluten-free foods can have just as much sugar, fat, and calories as similar gluten-containing foods. Regardless of the gluten-free or gluten-filled diet, it is important to make healthy, informed food choices for your child.
- Gluten is a protein found naturally in foods containing wheat, rye, or barley, like breads, and may be added to other foods to enhance flavor.
- Some children can experience an autoimmune reaction to gluten exposure.
- A gluten-free diet in children without an autoimmune condition is unnecessary. A child may miss out on important nutrients when gluten is removed without a medical reason.