Millions of children and their families in the U.S. are eliminating gluten from their diets. Whether they are among the estimated 1 percent of children with celiac disease, or among those with gluten sensitivity, these children require a gluten-free diet to maintain their health. While beneficial, and even medically necessary, the gluten-free diet can be unhealthy if approached the wrong way.
Why Avoid Gluten?
Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat, barley and rye. It is the ingredient responsible for the fluffy texture of cakes and other baked goods, and is also what binds dough together. Although most commonly found in baked goods and cereals, gluten may also be present in salad dressings, soy sauce, supplements and even lip balm. For the majority of people, gluten is easy to digest, but for millions of Americans, it can pose a problem. Up to 18 million Americans may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition characterized by a difficulty processing gluten, which can include symptoms ranging from chronic bloating and diarrhea to migraines. For the estimated 2 million celiac disease sufferers, the presence of even small amounts of gluten will trigger a harmful autoimmune response that can cause severe abdominal pain and inhibit the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.
Potential Problems with a Gluten-Free Diet
Adopting a gluten-free diet can vastly improve a child’s quality of life, and for those with celiac disease, it is medically necessary. Care must be taken, however, to ensure a balanced, nutritious diet, and the following should be considered:
Obesity: The gluten-free diet has gained popularity in recent years because it has been promoted as a weight-loss regimen. Nutritionists state, however, that any weight lost while avoiding gluten probably has more to do with cutting out popular junk foods that usually contain gluten, including pizza, cake and doughnuts. That said; it is definitely possible to actually gain weight while avoiding gluten. In fact, gluten-free crackers, breads and cookies tend to be higher in fat than wheat products.
Vitamin/Mineral Deficiency: Wheat, barley and rye, the whole grains that contain gluten, are an excellent source of fiber, folate, vitamin B-6, calcium, zinc and magnesium. Similar gluten-free products, however, are often made with rice flour and other refined, low-nutrient grains.
Overly Processed, Packaged Foods: Switching the family diet to gluten-free can seem daunting at first, and it is tempting to jump for anything that says “gluten-free” on the package without considering which wheat-alternatives are used. These packaged wheat alternative snacks, however, are neither more nutritious nor healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts and are best minimized.
The Nutritious Gluten-Free Diet
When it comes to eating gluten-free, what you eat is just as important as what you don’t eat. Not all gluten-free grains are created equal, from a nutritional point of view. The least nutritious wheat substitutes, including white and brown rice flour, are best minimized, while healthy, vitamin-packed grains—like buckwheat and quinoa—should be the preferred choice. To help make up for any vitamins and minerals lacking in gluten-free grains, it is also a good idea to eat more vegetables, including chard, broccoli and spinach, as well as lean meats and dairy products. Your child’s doctor may also recommend a multi-vitamin to supplement any other nutrients lacking in his or her diet. To reduce the risk of obesity and malnutrition, experts recommend that children and adults following a gluten-free diet first consult with their doctor and nutritionist for guidance.
One benefit of starting a gluten-free diet is that it provides the perfect opportunity to reinvent the family diet. Embrace the challenge and start experimenting with nutrient-packed snacks such as nuts, blueberries and roasted chickpeas, and try to incorporate more vegetables into the family dinner. The result will not only help diversify you and your child’s gluten-free diet, it will help make the family healthier overall.