The Truth about Gluten Sensitivity
Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a cross of wheat and rye). Many people find that they have problems when ingesting gluten but gluten intolerance is not a food allergy. It is a physical condition in which the gut cannot properly digest gluten proteins. These proteins sit in the gut, undigested, and so the body treats them like a foreign invader. This causes gut irritation and interferes with the body’s ability to absorb the nutrients in food. It can also lead to nutritional deficiencies and a host of other physical issues, including chronic fatigue, neurological disorders, anemia, nausea, depression and rashes.
In order for the gut to heal and the physical issues to subside, it is necessary to remove all gluten from the diet. Depending on the severity of a person’s gluten intolerance, it is sometimes possible to slowly introduce certain grains, such as those that have been fermented or sprouted, back into the diet. Others are never able to digest gluten in any form without severe side effects.
Recently, increasing numbers of parents have discovered that gluten adversely affects their children. Often the intolerance goes unnoticed until the symptoms are severe and have lead to significant digestive or behavioral issues.
Common Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance in Children
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bloating in the abdomen
- Failure to thrive
- Inability to focus
- Frequent vomiting
- Abdominal pain
What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is one type of gluten intolerance which is manifested in damage to the villi of the small intestine. Testing for the condition has been available since the 1940’s but has not been widely used until the last decade. Celiac disease is a serious condition that can negatively impact a child’s development if it goes undiagnosed for too long.
The Possible Link to Gluten and ADHD, Autism and Other Behavioral Concerns
While minimal research has been done on the link between gluten intolerance and behavioral conditions such as autism and ADHD, many parents and teachers have reported a decrease in aggressive, disruptive and impulsive behaviors, even in those not diagnosed with ADHD or autism, when gluten is removed from the diet.
How Is Gluten Intolerance Diagnosed?
Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned about any of the above symptoms. The pediatrician may order testing, including an endoscopy, biopsy or blood panels. However, these tests are specifically designed to detect specific damage caused by Celiac disease. Negative results only rule out Celiac disease, not other types of gluten intolerance. Celiac disease can still develop later in life, so it is important to monitor symptoms.
The only way to be certain of gluten intolerance in children is to completely remove gluten from the diet for at least four weeks. The symptoms are then monitored to see if there is any improvement once gluten is removed. Avoiding gluten can be intimidating at first and it takes some time and research to adjust to the transition, however, most people report that it isn’t as difficult of a lifestyle to maintain as they originally thought once they find some good alternatives for their family.
How to Manage a Child’s Gluten Sensitivity
Removing gluten from the child’s diet is essential in managing the symptoms of gluten intolerance. Most children are not happy about the drastic change to their diet as many of their favorite breads, pasta, baked goods and snacks will be off the menu.
Here are some tips and tricks to help you make the transition easier:
Become a Gluten Detective
- Be careful of labels. Wheat-free doesn’t necessarily mean the product is gluten-free. It could contain one of the other grains that should be avoided and may have been subjected to cross-contamination.
- Look for gluten in unexpected places, such as vitamins. If your child still frequently puts items in his mouth, check the label on play dough or make your own.
- The only way to be certain that a product is gluten free is to contact the manufacturer directly. It may contain such small amounts of ingredients containing gluten that they aren’t required to list it on the label, however, even the smallest amount of gluten can be detrimental to the gluten-sensitive person.
- Be on the lookout for cross-contamination. Ask manufacturers if the food is processed on shared machines that also produce items containing gluten. Consider cross contamination risks when eating out, as well as when preparing food at home if other members of your family still eat gluten.
Be Prepared, Creative and Look for Alternatives
- Many gluten-free versions of popular food items are now available, including breads, pasta, pancake mixes and cookies. These products are often more expensive than traditional versions and you may need to sample different brands before you find one that tastes good to your family. Look for special gluten-free sections in the grocery store and when all else fails, check out online retailers such as Amazon.com and Vitacost.com.
- Many resources are available on eliminating gluten. Hundreds of books, cookbooks, magazines and websites are devoted to the topic. Visit a library, bookstore or simply search the internet for more information and inspiration.
- Pack food when you are going to restaurants, parties or even just out running errands so your child always has something to eat regardless of the choices or preparation methods you run into. Send older children and teens with small containers or bags of food that can fit into their purse or backpack. Leave boxes of your child’s favorite gluten-free snacks in their classroom, so they can still enjoy a treat when their classmates bring in cupcakes.
Focus on What Your Child Can Eat Instead of What They Can’t
Many foods are naturally free of gluten. These include:
- Meat, fish and poultry (be careful of breading, batters and marinades and check poultry such as whole chickens and turkey that may have been injected with a sodium solution which often contains gluten)
- Seeds and nuts
- Fruits and vegetables
- Most dairy products
There are still many grains that are fine for people with gluten sensitivities to eat, including:
- Corn, hominy and cornmeal
- Flours made of gluten free grains (rice, soy, corn, potato, bean, etc.)
Helping Your Child Transition to Life with a Gluten Sensitivity
- If your child is resistant to the dietary changes, point out how much better they’re feeling and the way their symptoms are subsiding. It is often difficult for children to see the connection.
- Explain to your child what it means to have a gluten intolerance. Prepare a fact sheet with this information for teachers, babysitters, extended family and other caregivers.
- Serve a wide variety of food to keep boredom from setting in.
- Encourage children to help you research gluten free-foods and recipes. Shop for ingredients and cook together. Even young children can feel part of the process by getting items off the shelves, pouring ingredients into the mixing bowl and stirring.
Your child many not be the only one to benefit from the changes. Many adults report feeling better themselves after transitioning the whole family to a gluten-free diet. This is probably because it results in a healthier diet overall.
Rachael Moshman is a lifelong Florida resident, but hates the heat. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in education with focuses in early childhood, infant/toddler development and special needs. She is a freelance writer and college instructor. Her greatest accomplishment is becoming the last mom to an amazing little girl through foster care adoption. In addition to her husband and daughter, she lives with two cats and a mannequin named Vivian. She is a magazine junky, owns too many shoes and collects tons of recipes that she never attempts to make. You can find out more about her writing at www.rachaelmoshman.com.