Experts say there are risks associated with putting a child on a gluten-free diet when they don’t have celiac disease.
Take a tour of any grocery store, and the phrase “gluten-free” seems to appear everywhere from labels on salad dressing to bags of corn chips.
It’s not your imagination.
Since 2012, the amount of gluten-free products available in stores has jumped 135 percent. What’s more, in a 2015 Gallup survey, one in five U.S. adults responded that they actively include gluten-free foods in their diet.
These studies and other anecdotal information about the movement to eat gluten-free have pediatric doctors and nutritionists concerned about the diets’ reach.
“There are things about this diet that can be life changing for the better,” Dr. Norelle R. Reilly, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Columbia University Medical Center, told Healthline. “There are also things about this diet that can be for the worse.”
Reilly recently published a commentary in The Journal of Pediatrics that talks about the current wave of gluten-free foods, and urges parents to consult a doctor or nutrition expert if they believe a gluten-free diet will benefit their child.
For anyone who has celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is a must.
The disorder hinders the digestion and absorption of gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. People who can’t eat gluten experience ailments that include severe bloating, diarrhea, and malnutrition.
There is no known cure and only a diet free of gluten provides relief.
Reilly told Healthline that her commentary wasn’t written for parents of children who are already diagnosed with celiac disease.
It’s really for those who have eliminated wheat in their kids’ diet because they suspect gluten intolerance or because they think it’s a healthier way to eat. She also wanted to alert pediatricians.
Reilly’s hope is to educate the masses on what eating gluten free truly entails and what it means in terms of health and wellness.
“Knowledge is key … especially when you are making decisions about your child’s diet,” she said.
One of the greatest concerns for children who follow a gluten-free diet revolves around adequate nutrition, according to Reilly.
Deficiency in vitamin B, iron, fiber, folic acid, and calcium are potential risks.
How gluten-free eating impacts bone density, weight loss, and weight gain are issues that parents need to keep on their radar.
“Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for kids,” Angela Lemond, R.D.N., C.S.P., L.D., who runs a private practice and is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Healthline. “If you cut out carbs with a meal the kids are going to drop weight. I’ve seen it firsthand.”
Both Lemond and Reilly said that the influx of gluten-free products currently available to the consumer presents a bit of a doubled-edged sword.
“For a kid that has celiac disease, they can feel normal because there are so many products out there now,” Reilly said.
But those products don’t necessarily provide a healthier option than their gluten-based counterparts, Lemond added.
“Flavor is compromised when you leave out wheat,” she said. “In order to make that up, you add sugar.”
What’s more, many gluten-free convenience foods are not adequately fortified, according to Lemond, which circles back to the potential for kids to miss out on key nutrients.
“Vitamin B is lower in some gluten-free foods,” Lemond said. “Iron is going to be less in those refined convenience foods.”
Should a parent suspect gluten intolerance in their child, the first step is to get tested for celiac disease, Reilly said.
If the disease is ruled out but eliminating wheat is still something a parent would like to continue because they see benefits, Lemond said her top priority becomes education.
A diet free of gluten is challenging to follow and parents need guidance on how to achieve well-balanced and healthy meals for their kids.
“You really can’t argue with someone when they say they have symptom relief,” Lemond said.
Symptom relief is what Barb Shipley intended for her 13-year-old daughter after removing gluten from her child’s diet.
Three years ago her daughter endured severe eczema. At first Shipley thought it was peanuts, but then she began to suspect gluten.
“At first we tried to go gluten light,” she said.
But when her daughter came home from a camping trip with another family — where she didn’t avoid gluten-based foods — and the eczema returned, it became clear that the protein needed to be removed, Shipley said.
Today, the entire family’s diet tends “scale paleo,” she said. This keeps the protein at bay in most of their meals, although she does buy some gluten-free cereals and breads for her daughter and two other sons to eat.
Shipley has not sought counsel from her pediatrician regarding going gluten-free. Instead, she turned to an acupuncturist who specializes in Chinese medicine for guidance.
However, her doctor is aware of how the family eats and did test all of Shipley’s children for celiac disease. They all came up negative.
Most of Shipley’s education on how to cook gluten-free has come from her two sisters, who eliminated the protein from their diets decades ago.
Right after the acupuncturist recommended that gluten be removed, the family embarked on an annual vacation with her siblings. Shipley said the timing was perfect.
“It was two months of education,” she said, on “go-to methods,” for preparing to live gluten-free.
Shipley is aware of the concern about inadequate nutrition and gluten-free diets. She is careful to incorporate plenty of protein and vegetables during mealtime.
“We prescribe to a whole foods diet,” she said. “I feel like we are doing pretty good.”