3 reasons your child shouldn’t go “gluten-free” (unless your doctor says so)

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me at @drClaire

There is a puzzling and worrisome new phenomenon that I am seeing as a pediatrician: parents who are putting their children on gluten-free diets.

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.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains. It’s in bread and other baked goods, cereals, pastas — and in many other foods in small amounts. For people with celiac disease, even those small amounts can make them sick. People with allergies to wheat can’t eat it either. But the number of people with celiac disease or wheat allergy is actually pretty small. For both of these conditions, there are tests that can be done to make the diagnosis (which are best done when the person has been eating gluten, not when they’ve been gluten-free).

Some people “feel better” on a gluten-free diet, even though their medical tests are normal. 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. 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. Some studies suggest that there can be a strong placebo effect, too. The mind-body connection is very strong, and sometimes just believing something will help makes it help. And while some people without celiac disease or wheat allergy may indeed react to gluten in a way that isn’t healthy, those people are relatively few.

Yet “gluten-free” is all over products in the grocery store — as if gluten were evil. But gluten isn’t evil at all. Here are three ways that a gluten-free diet can be unhealthy for children:

  • It can be missing important nutrients. Whole grains that contain gluten have lots of crucial nutrients — including B vitamins, antioxidants, iron, selenium, and magnesium. They have fiber, too, which is important for good digestion. While it’s possible to get these nutrients and fiber without eating gluten, it takes some work.
  • It can be too low in calories for growing children. Kids need healthy calories to grow, and when you cut out foods made with wheat or that otherwise contain gluten, it can be harder to get those calories.
  • It can be high in arsenic. A staple of a gluten-free diet is rice — and many rice products are high in arsenic. The rice plant is particularly good at pulling arsenic out of the soil, and there is a fair amount of it left from prior pesticide use. Arsenic in large amounts can be lethal, but even smaller amounts can lead over time to not only cancer and other health problems, but to learning problems when infants and children are exposed. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration have been cautioning parents about limiting rice and rice products in their children’s diet.

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.

So before you cut gluten out of your child’s diet, talk to your doctor. Talk together about why you want to do it; find out if there are any tests that should be done, or if there are other ways to achieve what you are hoping to achieve by cutting out gluten. A child’s diet can have a big effect on not only her current health, but her future health; be sure you are making the very best choices.

Comments:

  1. Dr.D.M.Mahesh

    Thanks @drClaire for this article. There is a new sort of WAR between the Rice & Wheat group. The rice with its ability to blend to anything makes it the most attractive food , and with wheat that come up as the prefered food for people with diabetes has made rice look bad. Hence the rice group has started this Gluten myth and making people fearful of wheat, which though partially true is far from reality. The mantra of health has to be WHOLE grains [ whole wheat and unpolished rice ] and not refined grains whether wheat or rice. Finally, both are essential, but need to be consumed in the appropriate quantities. The current plate method of healthy eating gives clear restriction of WHOLE cereals to 1/4th of 9 inch plate.
    Hope people chose the middle path and not extremes to make healthy food choices

  2. www.kelambubandung.com

    My children eat anything that exists, whether it is good for children’s health

  3. Mel

    The only issue with relying on tests to determine weather on not something is healthy or unhealthy or your body is that all too often tests can miss, or not go into a underlying condition thoroughly enough. A test may tell me that I have no intolerance to gluten, but i after eating it I get a hashimoto thyroid attack (gluten is a big issue with suffers) then I am always going to listen to my body before the doctors.

  4. Kevin

    I agree that it can be somewhat unhealthy for children. But what about if the child has a sensitivity like I do. I am gluten sensitive as an adult and only recently found out. Reading online and finding posts like this are what has helped me get through it mostly. I find that I cannot eat the same stuff I use to like and rely more on finding gluten free recipes. If it wasn’t for simple stuff like this, then I would not even feel human. I wish I could have some bread. Gluten free bread just isn’t the same.

  5. Denise Miller

    This article is ridiculous! The focus must be on Gluten Syndrome….the huge umbrella of over 300 health issues with one spoke being Celiac Disease. Please research the work of brilliant and progressive Dr. Rodney Ford, a pediatric gastroenterologist. Proactive prevention is the key to optimal health, safety and well being!

  6. anonymous

    I agree with one thing at least in this article and it is that a child or anyone for that matter shouldn’t assume that they should just go on a gluten-free diet without taking the proper tests to find out the cause of their symptoms. The difference between a diagnosed Celiac and a person that doesn’t know for sure is that if you have Celiac disease and don’t know it then you’re just relying on your symptoms and diagnosing yourself which can be in the future more harmful to you than you think. Celiac disease can be a very complex disease to diagnose. Ultimately, if you get bad symptoms after eating you should see a GI doctor that will run the proper tests to find out what the root of the problem might be. Blood tests are not always good way to test for Celiac. Endoscopy and genetic testing along with blood work under the care of a GI doctor is by far the best way to go. If you just live your life without knowing for sure then you can risk far more health problems in the future. Celiacs have to be on a strict gluten-free diet. In order for your GI tests to be accurate, you’d have to continue ingesting gluten.
    just f.y.i.: my blood work came back fine(it showed no signs of celiac) but I carry the genetic marker for celiac and my endoscopy confirmed that I have Celiac disease.

  7. Court

    Articles like this make me laugh so hard. I think they are totally paid off or have a concrete opinion why they’re willing to hold on to their “grain”. The wheat today is not the wheat is was back then. It is biologically and genetically different than old world wheat. I am diagnosed as gluten intolerant, it was the cause of my eczema, migraines and digestion issues. When I gave it up about 4 years ago my health improved drastically. However when I visited Paris, I did an experiment. I tested to see if I was able to eat their bread! France is apart of the list that banned GMO’s. And guess what I dined there with NO PROBLEMS! I ate bread with every meal. Then I back to the States and ate a burger and I was so sick and had bad rashes. It’s the quality of food here which is subpar. So before you come to a conclusion on why kids “should not do a gluten free diet” make sure you also mention that there are other ways to get your nutrients instead of depending on “Frankenwheat”. I wish my parents allowed me to be gluten free. Do your own research people, find out what works for you!

  8. Melinda Arcara (aka Gluten-Free Bebe)

    Is the author of this article being paid by the wheat farmer lobby groups? Name one child that is eating a diet that contains whole grain wheat? Most people are eating processed wheat/glulten containing products that contain high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, coloring and flavorings. My son had a motor tick and his doctor wanted me to see a neurologist to have him diagnosed with tourettes. Although he tested negative for Celiac (his father and uncle both have it), without the support of his doctor, I removed gluten and his tick has stopped. His diet contains other whole grains like quinoa and buckwheat and he eats minimal amounts of rice. He eats tons of fruits and vegetables and some processed foods and is thriving better than most gluten-full children we know. People who eat gluten-free as a medical necessity aren’t stupid, they do it to get and stay healthy. So please change your article to read, “ANY diet (gluten-free or not) made up of all processed foods is not healthy for anyone!”

  9. Michelle

    Gluten containing foods don’t contain nutrients they are fortified with them (they are added in!) as apart from carbohydrate gluten containing foods such as bread and pasta don’t contain much of anything healthy food is simply food and cutting gluten out is not dangerous for your diet or child

  10. Heather Twist

    My kids went gluten-free at home 18 years ago, because *I* have celiac and didn’t want the risk of contamination. My 5-yr old daughter’s comment, a couple of months in, was “Mom, I’m so glad we went gwooten free!”. “Why?” I asked, wondering if she even knew what she was talking about. “Because our food is SO MUCH BETTER NOW!”.
    And yes, it was! Because we couldn’t just live off packaged junk like we used to, and I had to actually learn to cook. No more pop-tarts for breakfast, sadly.
    I suspect some organization is giving out pre-written news articles about why “gluten free” is bad. I can think of lots of reasons people might not want to bother … actually cooking is a lot of work, and our diets in America are mainly based on wheat. But to say gluten-free is *dangerous* … that is just silly. Try looking at the health of cultures that eat lots of wheat, and those that don’t … the non-wheat-eaters tend to be the healthier ones, not vice-versa.
    If you want to feed your kids a really healthy diet, concentrate on good fruits and vegies, nuts and tubers, good eggs, and seafood (all that nice DHA for growing brains!). You’ll save lots of money, not buying prepared foods. And you’ll be teaching them good habits for the rest of their lives.

    • Melinda Arcara aka Gluten-Free Bebe

      I agree with you Heather! Well said! My husband is Celiac and I’m gluten-intolerant. Every meal in our house is well thought out and we spend a huge amount of money buying quality foods (local, season and organic). We eat at home more often, bring our own food and buy more fresh food than many other families that aren’t gluten-free. It infuriates me that there are so many articles being written about how “unhealthy” this way of eating is for kids. Doctors aren’t GOD’s, they get an average of 23.9 hours of nutrition training. That doesn’t make them experts.

    • Gluten-Free Bebe

      I agree with you Heather! Well said! My husband is Celiac and I’m gluten-intolerant. Every meal in our house is well thought out and we spend a huge amount of money buying quality foods (local, season and organic). We eat at home more often, bring our own food and buy more fresh food than many other families that aren’t gluten-free. It infuriates me that there are so many articles being written about how “unhealthy” this way of eating is for kids. Doctors aren’t GOD’s, they get an average of 23.9 hours of nutrition training. That doesn’t make them experts.

    • Christina M.

      You mention something this article does as well…

      …that you and your family ate pop tarts for breakfast before going gluten free. To quote the article:

      “Some people ‘feel better’ on a gluten-free diet, even though their medical tests are normal. 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. 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. ”

      I am not gluten free, and I fully admit I love to bake, but I also eat a diet of high quality grains, proteins, vegetables, fruits, etc. As I shifted more towards eating these things I naturally felt better. It’s not because I stopped eating gluten (because I didn’t), it’s because I just started eating better. For most people the answer is not going to be to not eat gluten – it is going to be to eat better food.

  11. Anonymous

    “A gluten-free diet can be very unhealthy for children.”

    I’m sorry, this is just silly. Wonder Bread, pasta, and Hot Pockets aren’t so nutrient-dense that kids can’t survive without them. Humans didn’t consume any wheat for hundreds of thousands of years, yet somehow we managed to survive.