From magazine columns to product displays in grocery stores, the term “gluten-free” continues to increase in popularity as more Americans become concerned with consuming healthier diets.
Adopting a gluten-free lifestyle has been credited with improving digestive health issues, enhancing weight loss, increasing energy levels and reducing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. With all of these claims, it is difficult for parents and caregivers not to wonder if going gluten-free could improve the health of their children.
Gluten is a protein naturally found in barley, rye and all species of wheat, including kamut, spelt and durum. Gluten creates the elasticity of dough, provides a delicate, yet chewy texture in baked goods and serves as a thickener and binder in many food products.
According to health and nutrition experts of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Celiac Disease Foundation, gluten should be eliminated from the diet of children diagnosed with celiac disease or with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). In a person with celiac disease, foods with gluten trigger the production of antibodies that damage the lining of the small intestine. Failure of a celiac patient to follow a strict gluten-free diet can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, osteoporosis, stunted growth and increased risk of some cancers.
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Unlike in celiac disease, consuming gluten-containing foods does not cause the body to produce antibodies that damage the small intestine in those with NCGS. These individuals do, however, experience the same unpleasant symptoms as those with celiac disease, including gas, bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, eczema, constipation, depression, mood changes and headaches.
Knowing the detrimental long-term effects of untreated celiac disease, many parents may immediately consider removing gluten from their children’s diets. However, gluten is found in such a wide variety of foods that removing it unnecessarily from children’s diets could prevent them from getting important vitamins and minerals needed for growth, particularly B vitamins and iron.
If parents and caregivers believe that their child has either celiac disease or NCGS, the child should be tested by a health-care provider before being placed on a gluten-free diet to ensure an accurate diagnosis.
For parents and caregivers of children diagnosed with some type of gluten sensitivity, adopting a gluten-free lifestyle can be challenging at first, particularly when it comes to grocery shopping and meal preparation. A few tips for navigating the supermarket are to first reach for fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen fruits and vegetables with no added ingredients, cornmeal, rice and beans. These foods are already included in many families’ diets and can be inexpensive if purchased in season.
Other gluten-free foods, many of which can be used to replace gluten-containing grains in recipes, include cassava, soy, potato, tapioca, sorghum, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, arrowroot, amaranth, teff, flax, chia, yucca and nut flours.
When shopping for foods, caregivers can also look for the gluten-free label on packaged food products. This is a voluntary label placed on foods by the manufacturer and indicates that the product contains less than 20 ppm gluten, a level that can be safely consumed by most celiac disease patients.
Soy sauce, deli chicken salad, sauces, cream soups, salad dressings, deli meats, sausages, ketchup, ice cream, yogurt, candy and dietary supplements can contain hidden sources of gluten. The label of these products should be carefully inspected before being purchased for those with celiac disease and NCGS conditions.
Rebecca Creasy is the Houston County Extension agent for food and nutrition and family and consumer sciences. Contact her at 478-987-2028 or firstname.lastname@example.org.