Going gluten free is so popular these days that grocery stores and supermarkets are even marketing products that never contained gluten (think fresh fruits and vegetables) as being gluten free just to get in on the hype.
While gluten free may be trendy, I don’t think it is just a passing fad. Our modern wheat is much more damaging to human health than its ancient cousins, and people’s bodies are starting to have stronger and more virulent reactions to it. The anecdotal evidence for the benefits of going without gluten is enormous, and scientific data is starting to catch up.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is actually a composite of several different proteins found in wheat and related grains, such as barley and rye. It is what gives bread its characteristic chewiness, and it is used in food processing to help foods stick together. In fact, the word “gluten” means “glue” in Latin.
It is thought that most people tolerate gluten without issue, although some recent research suggests that perhaps we all have more trouble with gluten than we thought. That is a subject for another post and more research. What we do currently know is that there are some people who are sensitive to gluten, which causes their bodies to have a reaction against it.
A reaction to gluten occurs when the cells in the small intestine, which normally make up a tight wall, are damaged (due to gluten exposure or a variety of other offenders in modern life). When damaged, the tight wall of the intestine becomes permeable, allowing gluten to cross into the bloodstream. There, the body attacks the gluten proteins just as it would a bacteria or virus because it sees them as invaders. There are a variety of different diseases associated with gluten intolerance and each of them involves different reactions, but the basic process is the same.
Gluten Intolerance in Babies and Children
Most people think of gluten sensitivity as an adult disease, a result of many years of poor dietary and lifestyle habits, but it is becoming increasingly common for children and even infants to suffer from gluten intolerance in some form or another. Part of the responsibility for gluten intolerance in young children today is due to the difference between modern and ancient wheat. Another part of the responsibility is due to genetics.
A person can be genetically predisposed to gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and other gluten-related disorders. Simply being a carrier for a gene doesn’t mean that gene has to be expressed, though. Today’s children are experiencing gluten intolerance at an increasing rate because of the nutrient poor diets of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
The standard American diet (SAD) has deteriorated in the past 150 years from one that promoted robust health to one full of excess sugar, foods processed beyond recognition, artificial flavors and additives, genetically modified ingredients, and rancid vegetable oils. The effects of these influences on our diet have been magnified in each generation, with disease rates skyrocketing and the age of onset becoming younger and younger. More and more carriers of the genes related to gluten sensitivity are expressing those genes (i.e. actually showing gluten sensitivity) because our diet has effectively shut off the healthy genes. Now it is not uncommon for a baby to be born with gluten sensitivity or even celiac disease, which was previously unheard of.
How Do You Know If Your Child is Sensitive to Gluten?
It would be wonderful if every child could be given a simple test to determine whether or not their body reacts negatively to gluten, but tests for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are notoriously unreliable, especially in infants and toddlers. Part of the problem is that there are so many different ways a person can react to gluten.
Most doctors will run a blood test for celiac disease, but the test is known to give many false negatives. Most of the false negatives come in people who don’t have severe damage to the villi (little finger-like protrusions in the small intestines) that is usually associated with the disease. Damage to the villi requires exposure to gluten over time, and babies and children don’t have that exposure. Despite being gluten sensitive or even celiac, their blood test may come back negative. There are other tests available to test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but they aren’t available through most doctors’ offices, and many doctors are not aware of the tests because they are fairly new.
The best way to test for gluten sensitivity in a young child is to do an elimination challenge. The child (AND mother, if the child is breastfeeding at all) must remove gluten from the diet for at least two weeks (30 days would be optimal). During the time that gluten is out of the diet there can be no cheating. Parents and caretakers must monitor the child for signs of changes, both physiological and emotional. After the trial period is over, gluten is reintroduced for a short period of time and symptoms are again monitored. If there is a dramatic change in symptoms either upon removing gluten or reintroducing gluten, the child is most likely sensitive to gluten in some way.
(Note: Because testing for gluten sensitivity is completely unreliable when no gluten is present in the diet, you may want to consider having testing done before completing an elimination challenge. The testing is in no way necessary and will not necessarily provide correct results, but if it is important to you to test, it is easier to test before removing gluten rather than risk having to reintroduce it and causing symptoms to flare later.)
Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance in Babies and Toddlers
Gluten sensitivity manifests in many ways, both physiological and psychological, and the symptoms it causes can also be symptoms of many other diseases or allergies. That is why it often takes so long for parents to realize that their children are gluten intolerant. The following is a list of the most common signs of gluten intolerance:
Diarrhea, constipation, or alternating diarrhea/constipation (fowl-smelling stools)
Stomach pain, bloated belly, excess gas
Slow weight gain or label of “failure to thrive”
Anemia or other vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Irritability, crying, or colic with otherwise unexplained cause
GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease), spitting up excessively, vomiting (especially more than 1 hour after eating)
Difficulty falling or staying asleep/difficulty sleeping soundly
“Wet” sounding burps or hiccups
What To Do If Your Child Exhibits Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance
If your child exhibits one or more of these symptoms of gluten intolerance without other explanation, it would be wise to do a gluten elimination challenge for 30 days as described above to see if there is improvement in the symptoms. If so, your child is likely gluten sensitive and should not continue to eat gluten in any form.
Continued exposure to gluten in a gluten sensitive individual can lead to malnutrition, autoimmune disease, and many other complications. It is important to note that gluten DOES pass through breast milk, so any mother who is breastfeeding a child (even a toddler who nurses infrequently) must also go completely gluten-free to avoid exposing a gluten sensitive child.
While going gluten free may seem overwhelming at first, it isn’t difficult to achieve in today’s world. There are tons of resources available for free online, and the most nutrient dense foods for infants and toddlers, such as animal products, traditional fats, vegetables, and fermented foods, are naturally gluten free. Trips to the grocery store may take longer at first because every label must be inspected (You will be surprised at the unexpected places you find gluten!), but with practice it becomes old hat. As long as you avoid gluten free replacements for low nutrient foods (also known as junk food), your child will in no way suffer and will actually thrive on a nutrient dense, gluten free diet.
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