3 reasons your child shouldn’t go “gluten-free” (unless your doctor says so)

Letter blocks surrounded with gluten free products including wild rice and oats

There is a puzzling and worrisome new phenomenon that I am seeing as a pediatrician: parents who are putting their children on gluten-free diets.

It’s puzzling because in the vast majority of cases it isn’t necessary — and it’s worrisome because, although parents are doing it because they think it’s healthy, a gluten-free diet can be very unhealthy for children.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains. It’s in bread and other baked goods, cereals, pastas — and in many other foods in small amounts. For people with celiac disease, even those small amounts can make them sick. People with allergies to wheat can’t eat it either. But the number of people with celiac disease or wheat allergy is actually pretty small. For both of these conditions, there are tests that can be done to make the diagnosis (which are best done when the person has been eating gluten, not when they’ve been gluten-free).

Some people “feel better” on a gluten-free diet, even though their medical tests are normal. However, this is unclear and controversial. Lots of us would feel better if our diet suddenly had more fruits and vegetables and less cake, cookies, and other carbohydrates. Also, a gluten-free diet may have less of certain sugars that are hard for some people to digest; it may be those sugars that are the culprit, not the gluten. Some studies suggest that there can be a strong placebo effect, too. The mind-body connection is very strong, and sometimes just believing something will help makes it help. And while some people without celiac disease or wheat allergy may indeed react to gluten in a way that isn’t healthy, those people are relatively few.

Yet “gluten-free” is all over products in the grocery store — as if gluten were evil. But gluten isn’t evil at all. Here are three ways that a gluten-free diet can be unhealthy for children:

  • It can be missing important nutrients. Whole grains that contain gluten have lots of crucial nutrients — including B vitamins, antioxidants, iron, selenium, and magnesium. They have fiber, too, which is important for good digestion. While it’s possible to get these nutrients and fiber without eating gluten, it takes some work.
  • It can be too low in calories for growing children. Kids need healthy calories to grow, and when you cut out foods made with wheat or that otherwise contain gluten, it can be harder to get those calories.
  • It can be high in arsenic. A staple of a gluten-free diet is rice — and many rice products are high in arsenic. The rice plant is particularly good at pulling arsenic out of the soil, and there is a fair amount of it left from prior pesticide use. Arsenic in large amounts can be lethal, but even smaller amounts can lead over time to not only cancer and other health problems, but to learning problems when infants and children are exposed. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration have been cautioning parents about limiting rice and rice products in their children’s diet.

Because gluten is in so many foods, being on a gluten-free diet can also make school lunches, play dates, and other aspects of a child’s daily life significantly more complicated — and it can be more expensive, too.

So before you cut gluten out of your child’s diet, talk to your doctor. Talk together about why you want to do it; find out if there are any tests that should be done, or if there are other ways to achieve what you are hoping to achieve by cutting out gluten. A child’s diet can have a big effect on not only her current health, but her future health; be sure you are making the very best choices.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 NIV

Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ Matthew 22:37 NIV

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4 NIV

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7 NIV

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. Proverbs 17:22 NIV

My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Proverbs 3:1-2 NIV

The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin. Proverbs 10:8 NIV

I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. Psalm 119:10 NIV

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord. Psalm 31:24 NIV

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12 NIV

I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. Psalm 119:7 NIV

Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. Psalm 119:2 NIV

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