Kids eat right.

Does My Child Need a Gluten Free Diet?

Reviewed by Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
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Going gluten free is a popular diet trend. So, might your child benefit from a gluten-free lifestyle?

Gluten is a protein found naturally in certain grains including wheat, barley and rye. Gluten improves taste and texture. So, it’s also added to everything from deli meats to french fries. For most children, gluten is completely harmless, with two exceptions. Children with celiac disease or with non-celiac gluten sensitivity must follow a gluten-free diet.

Celiac Disease and Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Celiac disease also is known as celiac sprue. For kids with these conditions, even the slightest morsel of gluten can spell trouble. The gluten triggers the release of antibodies which mount an assault on their bodies. These attacks damage the intestine, which makes it hard for kids to absorb the nutrients needed to grow and thrive. Gluten may also give these children gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Some kids with celiac disease lose weight and others gain weight. Untreated, celiac also can lead to health problems such as anemia, neurological disorders and osteoporosis.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS, affects even more kids. But, their reaction to gluten is less severe. For example, when these children consume gluten, their bodies don’t produce damaging antibodies. Though kids with NCGS may have celiac-like symptoms, the long-term complications are less serious.

If you suspect your child has celiac disease or NCGS, call your healthcare provider. Before going gluten free, get your child tested. For doctors to diagnose these conditions, your child must be eating a gluten-containing diet.

When A Child Needs a Gluten-Free Diet

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease or NCGS is a gluten-free diet, which can feel extremely restrictive and be difficult for a child to follow. Birthday parties, sleepovers, eating out and even school snack time can be tricky for these kids. To make teachers and other school staff aware of this special dietary need, complete a 504 Plan. This form documents for the school your child’s special needs related to celiac disease or NCGS. For example, the plan might require that school staff involved in the care and education of your child receive celiac disease training. The Celiac Foundation website has a free, sample plan.

Because so many foods contain gluten, restricting it can affect your child’s nutrition. For example, kids on a gluten-free diet cannot eat many enriched and fortified foods such as cereals, bread and pasta. These items are good sources of iron and B vitamins. So, how do you make sure your child gets the nutrients needed for good health? Meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist. A dietitian can work with you and your child to develop a gluten-free, balanced eating plan. The good news: for children with celiac disease, a gluten-free diet improves symptoms. Also, their growth returns to normal.