Going gluten-free might not be the healthiest choice for a child who doesn’t have celiac disease, according to a new article in The Journal of Pediatrics.
“The increasing popularity of the GFD [gluten-free diet] has important implications for children,” writes Norelle R. Reilly, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Columbia University Medical Center and author of the article. “Parents sometimes place their children on a GFD in the belief that it relieves symptoms, can prevent CD [celiac disease], or is a healthy alternative without previous testing for CD or consultation with a dietitian.”
The article, titled “The Gluten-Free Diet: Recognizing Fact, Fiction, and Fad,” attempts to debunk common myths about gluten, which is a protein is found in rye, wheat, barley, and many processed foods. Among them, Reilly points out: Gluten isn’t toxic.
Furthermore, in children who do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, there may be more risks than benefits to the gluten-free diet. Those risks include the potential for obesity, new-onset insulin resistance, and deficiencies of B vitamins, folate, iron, and other nutrients, the article notes.
Celiac disease is a hereditary autoimmune condition that affects just one in 100 people worldwide and is treated by excluding gluten from the diet, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
But in recent years, an enormous market has emerged around gluten-free foods. There are gluten-free crackers, cereals, pastas, granola bars, even dog foods. Meanwhile, many consumers now equate gluten-free products with healthy eating — whether or not they need to eat gluten-free. According to a 2014 survey by market research firm NPD, one in four respondents believe gluten-free is a healthy way to eat and 11 percent follow a gluten-free diet.
And when an adult starts on a diet, the rest of the family often goes along. The article cited a 2015 survey in which 35 percent of people cited “no reason” as their explanation for going gluten-free.
“There is no evidence that processed gluten-free foods are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts, nor have there been proven health or nutritional benefits of a GFD, except as indicated previously in this commentary,” Reilly writes. “Yet those who purchase gluten-free foods outside of a GFD and apart from treatment of disease comprise the bulk of gluten-free product consumers.”
And it can be especially hard on children, not just nutritionally but socially. How many kids meals — at school, at birthday parties — involve pizza or mac ’n cheese?
A Facebook site for the Celiac Support Group at Boston Children’s Hospital gives a taste of the challenges parents face when raising a child with celiac.
“Please tell me is nutella hazelnut chocolate spread gluten free?” one mother posted. “I have to bake a cake with it for my son.”
Another mom asked what kind of ice cream was gluten-free. She didn’t want her toddler missing out on summer memories of chasing the ice cream truck to grab a special treat. “I don’t want my daughter to miss out on my favorite childhood memory (that music down the street and all the kids running) just because she cannot have gluten!”