Are Gluten-Free Diets Safe for Kids?

Updated: April 15, 2019
Being “gluten free” is NOT a cool, trendy diet fad—it’s a lifestyle choice some parents make for their child’s health. But, is it okay for all kids? We asked and experts answered.
girl eating a non gluten free diet

My older daughter was diagnosed with Celiac disease (No consuming wheat!) last year; and ever since then we’ve had to change around our whole lifestyle by eliminating gluten from her diet—and answer lots of questions about Celiac from curious friends, as well as strangers. 

Being “gluten free” is NOT a cool, trendy diet fad—it’s a lifestyle choice some parents make for their child’s health. But, is it okay for all kids? We asked and experts answered.

More: 5 Snack Recipes for Kids with Food Allergies

Where can you find gluten?

Being gluten free means you avoid all foods with gluten—this includes primarily wheat, but also barley, rye and often oats,” explains Dr. Melissa Rose, a Flushing, NY-based Pediatric Gastroenterologist. “For children with celiac disease, they need to be on a strict diet without any traces of gluten. This means considering not only food, but also cooking surfaces for cross-contamination, vitamins and medications, and even Play-Doh.”

For my own daughter, because she was so small for her age, and very petite, we learned via bloodwork and an endoscopy she carried the gene for Celiac. Thus, after meeting with her medical team and a nutritionist, we put her on a strict gluten-free diet in the hopes it will help her grow.

How do you know if your child has issues with gluten?

According to Michelle Routhenstein, a NYC-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Owner of Entirely Nourished, some common symptoms seen in children who may have suspected Celiac disease are:

  • decreased appetite
  • constipation
  • poor growth (it can present as weight loss or weight gain)
  • itchy skin rash
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • gastrointestinal upset such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, excessive gas, or bloating

Untreated celiac disease, explains Routhenstein, can lead to anemia, neurological disorders and osteoporosis. “Sometimes no symptoms may manifest but if you have a family history of it, it may be helpful to notify your pediatrician. Before eliminating gluten from your child’s diet, get your child tested.” (But do note: For doctors to diagnose these conditions, your child must be eating a diet containing gluten.)

Is it OK to be gluten-free even if your child doesn’t have Celiac?

The short answer is ‘yes,’ but there’s a medical ‘catch.’ 

“The biggest misconception about a gluten-free diet is that it is inherently healthy,” says Dr. Rose. “Because many gluten-containing foods are vitamin, calorie and protein-rich, kids on a gluten free diet are at risk for deficiencies and need to be monitored closely by their doctor.”

According to Dr. Rose, for kids with a non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, being gluten free can result in relief of uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms including abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea. 

Talk to your kid’s pediatrician before eliminating gluten from their diet—there may be no medical need whatsoever to put your kid on a gluten-free diet, especially if they don’t have any height, weight, or digestive issues.

The cons of a gluten-free lifestyle

little girl eating gluten free diet

Dr. Claire McCarthy recently stated in an article for Harvard Health Publishing that she doesn’t understand why so many parents want their kids to be gluten free. “It’s puzzling because in the vast majority of cases it isn’t necessary—and it’s worrisome because, although parents are doing it because they think it’s healthy, a gluten-free diet can be very unhealthy for children.” 

Kids without diagnosed Celiac, says McCarthy, a Boston-area pediatrician, may “feel better” on a gluten-free diet, however, this is unclear and “controversial.”

“Lots of us would feel better if our diet suddenly had more fruits and vegetables and less cake, cookies, and other carbohydrates,” she rations. “Also, a gluten free diet may have less of certain sugars that are hard for some people to digest; it may be those sugars that are the culprit, not the gluten.” Plus, she says, those who are gluten-free are often told to consume rice as a gluten ‘alternative’; rice oftentimes contains arsenic, which, in high doses, isn’t so fab for young bodies to consume.

Social complications for kids

kids eating pizza at a birthday party

Being gluten free is hard for many kids. At birthday parties, for example, they can’t have any pizza, cookies, or cake, and sometimes snacks labeled ‘gluten free’ are loaded with extra sugar and sweetening for flavor. If your child is gluten free, you must carry lots of food for them, such as bananas, rice, or plain turkey, since most places you’ll go—from your local chain restaurant to an amusement park—will have menus full of gluten such as chicken nuggets, pizza, and mac and cheese.

Says McCarthy: “Because gluten is in so many foods, being on a gluten-free diet can also make school lunches, play dates, and other aspects of a child’s daily life significantly more complicated — and it can be more expensive, too.” If your child doesn’t have diagnosed Celiac, why make them be gluten free and go through such a huge lifestyle change at such a young age?

Gluten-free diets encouraged for kids with diagnosed Celiac

Kids with Celiac, though, are a different story.

Reminds Dr. Rose: “For children WITH Celiac disease, it is absolutely essential for them to be on a strict gluten-free diet. Otherwise, the intestine will continue to be damaged and they are at risk for long-term complications.”

If you go gluten free: Get those minerals

Routhenstein says that a gluten-free diet can be healthy when ensuring all vitamins and minerals are being consumed from other rich sources. “If done without supervision, you can put you and your family at risk of nutrient deficiencies.” 

This is why, Routhenstein stresses, you really should meet with a nutritionist if your child will be adapting to a gluten-free lifestyle.  

The nutrition media world is very confusing and “it is easy to be influenced by it,” says Routhenstein. “I provide each family with science-based evidence and allow them to choose the best way of eating for them. If they decide to be gluten free without having Celiac disease, I create a well-balanced meal plan that contains all the nutrients needed for the family to thrive.”

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