Unless your child has been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten-free foods may not be healthy for your youngster.
You don’t have to shop at a health food store these days to find a host of foods labeled “gluten-free.” In fact, you can find just about anything normally made from flour — like pasta, cookies, cakes, and bread — in a gluten-free version.
But that doesn’t mean gluten-free foods are nutritionally identical to their gluten-rich counterparts. And researchers are warning a gluten-free diet can be unhealthy for kids who have no proven medical reason to avoid gluten.
Celiac disease is a potentially serious autoimmune digestive disease triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. To make a diagnosis, your doctor takes a careful medical and family history and performs a physical exam, blood tests, and sometimes biopsies.
As many as one in 141 Americans of all ages have celiac disease, including children, according to the National Center for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms include gastrointestinal pain, bloating, fatigue, and chronic diarrhea that can result in difficulty absorbing nutrients. Left unchecked, celiac disease may damage the small intestine. So it’s clearly important for children, as well as adults, who have celiac disease to avoid gluten.
However, it’s not only people with diagnosed celiac disease who opt for gluten-free diets. Others believe gluten causes their joint pain, indigestion, fatigue, and additional symptoms. This syndrome, dubbed gluten sensitivity, isn’t accepted by all doctors, yet countless people insist they do feel better avoiding gluten-containing foods. Some claim a gluten-free diet helps with weight loss, too.
Whatever the reasons, about 3.1 million Americans are now shunning gluten. Although the number of cases of people with actual diagnosed celiac disease stayed the same between 2009 and 2014, a study from Mayo Clinic researchers found the number of people going gluten-free in the U.S. tripled during those years.
That has sparked a huge and growing market for a variety of gluten-free food products. And many people who avoid gluten understandably serve up what they are eating to their children, too.
But a study, presented at the Annual Congress of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition, revealed gluten-free products cannot be considered automatic substitutes for their gluten-containing counterparts. In fact, their nutrition quality can be markedly different and have unhealthy consequences for kids.
Investigators from the Research Group on Celiac Disease and Digestive Immunopathology at the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria La Fe in Valencia, Spain, compared the ingredients in 654 gluten-free products to 655 gluten-containing products. Overall, the gluten-free items were loaded with more calories and had a different nutritional composition than their gluten-containing counterparts, too.
For example, the gluten-free breads pasta, pizzas, and flours analyzed had significantly less protein and far more fat — including the saturated type known to promote heart disease — than gluten-containing foods. These differences, over time, could negatively impact children's growth and increase their risk of childhood obesity, the researchers concluded.
A balanced diet containing fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and a variety of carbohydrates is the best way for children to stay healthy. Gluten-free food is not the same as “healthy food.” Fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free and should be incorporated liberally into every child’s diet. But a gluten-free cookie is still a cookie.
“As more and more people are following a gluten-free diet to effectively manage celiac disease, it is imperative that foods marketed as substitutes are reformulated to ensure that they truly do have similar nutritional values,” said researcher Joaquim Calvo Lerma, PhD, of the Research Group on Celiac Disease and Digestive Immunopathology at the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria La Fe in Valencia, Spain. “This is especially important for children, as a well-balanced diet is essential to healthy growth and development."
Bottom line: Whether you are going gluten-free or not, it’s always a good idea to check labels and compare brands and formulations to make sure your children are getting the healthiest food choices.
February 27, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN