Study Says Gluten-Free Diets Are Bad for Kids, but That’s Not the Full Story

Image Source: Heather Neal
Image Source: Heather Neal

At my son’s four-month well checkup, I sat staring with my mouth half hanging open at the pediatrician. She had just said in the same breath that my son was allergic or intolerant to gluten but we should hurry up and give him some oatmeal so that he’s not unexposed to gluten for too long. I saw the hesitation cross her eyes as she said it. She knew what the research said, but she also knew what my son’s symptoms were telling us.

The research says that avoiding exposure to an allergen can actually increase the likelihood of food allergies, not prevent them. Furthermore, a new research study states that not only can gluten-free diets not be helpful for kids without celiac disease or wheat allergy, but they can actually be dangerous.

We’d been down this road before. My oldest son tested negative for Celiac disease and a skin-prick allergy test for wheat, but exhibits clear, unquestionable reactions when he consumes gluten. He’s been on a gluten-free (and dairy- and soy-free) diet for four years and his growth and development are thriving.

But back to that research. As I glance at the title of the article, “Gluten-Free Diets May Be Risky for Kids,” questions race through my head. Am I inadvertently harming my child? Should he be eating gluten? But as I read the study more closely, I calmed down. As with any news, there’s more to the content than the title alone.

Can gluten-free diets be dangerous for kids? Yes. Are gluten-free diets harmful for all kids without allergies or immune responses? Probably not.

The study reveals that gluten-free diets can be dangerous for kids not because of the lack of gluten in the diet, but because of the potential for missing out on nutrients and increasing fat and sugar consumption. Gluten itself is not a nutrient; it’s a protein component of food. Where the difference in nutrition of a gluten-free vs. gluten-filled diet comes in is the food choices that are made to replace gluten.

Can gluten-free diets be dangerous for kids? Yes. Are gluten-free diets harmful for ALL kids without allergies or immune responses? Probably not.
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Standing in front of my pantry, I see the shelf that holds my son’s “school” snacks. These are the snacks we have specifically for him to take to school to have in case he can’t eat the snack that the student of the day brought to share. Because he’s 4 and is now highly aware of being “different,” we try to provide snacks that are as similar as possible to the other kids’. (That right there alone could be reason enough not to put your kid on a gluten-free diet if they don’t need it — it’s tough for kids to be different and potentially ostracized or left out.)

I shudder when I turn the bags and boxes over to the nutrition label. These snacks may be gluten-free, but they’re certainly not a healthier choice than their counterparts. They still have processed oils and sugars in them. Some offer little when it comes to vitamins and minerals. Others are simply loaded up with sugar and other fillers to make up for the lack of gluten, whether it’s for taste, texture, or structure. This shelf lined with veggie straws, pretzels, crackers, and fruit snacks are no more nutritious than the other gluten-filled junk that lines the shelves at the grocery store.

But this accounts for one small bin of snacks in our pantry. I look at all the other shelves. I glance at our fridge. I look in my son’s lunch box. These things are not filled with such substitutes. The rest of his diet comes from real, whole foods — fruits, vegetables, and beans. Foods naturally full of vitamins and minerals. Foods that also just happen to not contain gluten. These are the things he eats 95 percent of the time.

When we look at one component of diet, we need to be sure we’re looking at the whole picture, no matter what side of the spectrum we fall on.
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There’s a huge difference between putting a kid on a gluten-free diet and feeding them an endless supply of gluten-free substitutes. Cupcakes, donuts, juice, and candy can all be gluten-free. “Gluten-free” is not synonymous with healthier. But a parent could also choose to serve foods that don’t contain gluten and consciously serve healthier alternatives like veggie noodles instead of pasta, beans instead of dinner rolls, grilled chicken instead of breaded chicken nuggets.

I think it’s hard to say with such an overarching generalization that a gluten-free diet is dangerous or healthy. We need to look beyond the labels and titles and look at what our kids are really eating. It’d be a lot easier to let my son eat junk like juice, gummies, and brownies instead of fighting to simply get him to taste the sweet potatoes, broccoli, and shrimp I made for dinner. Both of those groups of foods are gluten-free, but there’s a huge difference when it comes to their health factor.

As parents we need to be aware of more than just the headlines, but the reasons behind them. Could a gluten-free diet be dangerous for kids? Absolutely. It could cause them to miss out on essential nutrients if substitutes aren’t chosen carefully. It could cause them to feel isolated from their peers, especially at a young age. It could even potentially lead to allergies that may not have existed otherwise due to lack of exposure.

But could it also work out OK? Certainly. My son may not eat gluten, but his diet and tolerance for vegetables is nutritionally leaps and bounds ahead of other kids his age. When we look at one component of diet, we need to be sure we’re looking at the whole picture, no matter what side of the spectrum we fall on.

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