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Food for Thought-Gluten Free for Healthy Kids?

May 17, 2016
So much talk about gluten -free diets  yet, it may have risks for today's healthy children.

Other than a small percentage of people who have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, gluten — a mixture of two proteins found in grains like wheat and barley and commonly found in bread and pasta — is perfectly safe to consume. Many foods with gluten have essential nutrients. But as gluten-free's popularity keeps rising, experts are worrying about the risks of the restrictive diet on healthy children. There are several problems for children without a medical issue being fed gluten-free products, according to a commentary published in the Journal of Pediatrics. Chief among them:
  • They could be missing out on important nutrients
  • They may be getting excessive amounts of fat and sugar
  • They may be exposed to higher levels of toxins such arsenic
"Gluten-free processed foods are unevenly fortified," said Dr. Norelle Reilly, author of the commentary and an assistant professor of pediatrics and director of Pediatric Celiac Disease at the Columbia University Medical Center. "They can be deficient in fiber, B-vitamins, magnesium, calcium, iron, folate and vitamin D." Even in the case of children who must consume a gluten-free diet, parents should consult with a nutritionist to make sure kids get a balanced diet, Reilly said.

While there has been a slight uptick in the diagnosis of celiac disease, that increase doesn't explain the rapid rise in the sales of gluten-free products, which increased by 136 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to the consumer research firm Mintel. Many parents search the Internet when their children have a health problem and often find recommendations to switch to a gluten-free diet, says Reilly. "They were trying to treat some sort of condition or symptom, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, headaches, or problems with attention," she said. "Kids will often improve no matter what you do. So it's often hard to tell if they're improved because of a dietary change."  It isn't just about missing nutrients, Reilly said.

Many gluten-free products have higher quantities of fat and sugar compared to similar ones containing gluten — and that can lead to weight gain. Also, rice is often used as a substitute for gluten — and that can come with higher levels of toxins, such as arsenic.
The commentary, "nicely points out that, in healthy children, there is no evidence supporting the benefits of a gluten-free diet," said Dr. Arvind Srinath, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "Unfortunately, a gluten-free diet in healthy children risks health, social and economic consequences for kids and families." The lack of fiber in gluten-free products can cause constipation or children may feel socially isolated when they're not eating the same foods as their friends, Srinath says.

"Parents become so focused on eliminating gluten, that's all they are seeing with food selection, which can lead to nutritional imbalances because of extra sugars, fats and calories," says Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC health and nutrition editor. "It's always important for parents to know that removing foods from their child's diet without a biological need can be problematic for their health."

Are Babies Susceptible to Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, not a gluten allergy, and babies with a family history of celiac disease have a genetic predisposition to the disease and should be monitored for signs and symptoms. According to University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, in addition to a genetic predisposition, babies with Down syndrome, Turner syndrome and anemia have a greater risk of developing celiac disease. Babies who are not breastfed are more likely to suffer from celiac disease because many formulas contain wheat. Breast-fed babies would typically display signs and symptoms of celiac disease when they begin eating solid foods.

Article-Adapted from Today Health and Wellness

Heather Knott, RN-IBCLC
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