Written by P. Humbargar
Digestive problems involving gluten encompass a broad spectrum of disorders—from celiac disease, which has been recognized for decades, to gluten intolerance or sensitivity, which has only recently been accepted as a legitimate medical condition. It is estimated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population is affected with celiac disease, the most severe type of gluten intolerance, and as many as 10 percent may have some form of gluten sensitivity. Gluten intolerance can develop at any age, including early childhood, and given its prevalence, it is likely that some of us have a child, or know a child, with some form of the condition.
Gluten is a protein contained in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). As such, it is present in the staples of most western diets, including the favorite foods of most children, like pizza, pasta, breads, cookies, and crackers.
Removal of gluten from the diet is the treatment for all gluten intolerance problems. (Celiac disease may, in addition, require medication.)
Symptoms of gluten intolerance generally include bloating, abdominal pain or discomfort, and diarrhea. Other symptoms, such as headaches and migraines, lethargy and tiredness, weight loss, bone and joint pain, and muscular disturbances may also be present. As these symptoms often mimic many other conditions, gluten intolerance can be difficult to diagnose, especially in children, who are often prone to having digestive disturbances. For this reason, gluten intolerance could very well be under-diagnosed.
If you suspect that your child may have gluten intolerance, it is important to seek medical advice and not be tempted to simply remove gluten from the child’s diet in an attempt to diagnose and treat the disorder yourself.
This is because a test is needed to rule out celiac disease, which if left untreated, can result in serious and even life-threatening complications.
There is not yet a definitive test for non-celiac gluten intolerance. So, at present, this condition is diagnosed if the celiac test is negative, and symptoms improve after removing gluten from the diet.
The causes of gluten intolerance are not well understood—although the condition is thought to be an auto-immune disorder. The condition seems to be on the rise in most developed countries, and it has been suggested that our ultra-clean environments may play a role by preventing children from being exposed to antigens while their immune systems are developing. Not all experts agree, though. The apparent increase in gluten intolerance could just be due to more awareness and recognition of the condition.
Adhering to a gluten-free diet can be challenging, especially for children. Gluten-free products, including potato and rice based flours, however, are becoming increasingly available, and there is an abundance of naturally gluten-free foods to be had.
Healthy, naturally gluten-free foods include: unprocessed beans, seeds and nuts, fresh eggs, meats, fish, and poultry, fruits and vegetables, most dairy products, soy, and rice. It is important, though, to be sure that these foods are not processed or mixed with gluten-containing additives or preservatives.
This can be tricky, as foods that one would not expect to contain gluten, occasionally do. For example, gluten is sometimes found in ice cream, soy sauce, salad dressings, processed meats like hot dogs and bologna, and most foods prepared with a coating of batter, such as chicken nuggets. And oatmeal, though naturally gluten-free, can be cross-contaminated, so be sure it is labeled gluten-free.
Also, some medications and even vitamins contain gluten as a binding agent, so it is important to carefully read labels and ask your pharmacist if you are in doubt.
Because a gluten-free diet means not eating the many wheat and other grain products, which are often enriched with vitamins and minerals, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider or dietician to insure that your child’s gluten-free diet is providing key nutrients.
Switching to a gluten-free diet requires a number of lifestyle changes and takes time for children to get used to. We can help them by not focusing on the foods they can’t have, but by sharing with them all of the delicious gluten-free foods that they can have!
If you have had experience with a gluten-free diet or have any gluten-free recipes that your child especially likes, please share with us.