Elaine Taylor-Klaus took her daughter Bex off gluten 8 1/2 years ago after a nutritionist suggested the irritable and sensitive girl might have a gluten sensitivity. Within two weeks of eliminating gluten from her diet, Bex, now 18, was a different child.
Whether it’s for diagnosed celiac disease or suspected gluten sensitivity, many parents are switching their children to gluten-free diets. Busy parents might feel overwhelmed by the thought of a big dietary overhaul for kids already picky about food (and change in general). But going gluten-free doesn’t have to be scary.
“Parents are afraid to even try it because it sounds like it would be too hard,” said Taylor-Klaus, a parenting coach in Atlanta.
“I was one of those parents. I’m not saying it’s not hard. But Bex became so much easier to manage that the trade-off was far superior to what I thought it would be.”
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The trade-off is even more pronounced for kids with celiac disease, an inability to digest gluten, a protein found in products that contain wheat, barley or rye. It affects about one in 100 people in Europe and North America, according to the National Institutes of Health. The Mayo Clinic estimates that the number of people affected has quadrupled in the past 50 years, though the reason is unclear.
There is no treatment for celiac disease – which can cause bloating, diarrhea and constipation in some patients and mood swings and neurological symptoms in others – but it can be managed by eliminating gluten from your diet.
Here are some suggestions from experts and parents of gluten-free children on how to make the change easier for you and your child.
Consult a doctor
John Snyder, chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, said in an e-mail that parents should check with a doctor before changing a child’s diet, to ensure he or she continues to get proper nutrition.
There are many reasons parents consider putting a child on a gluten-free diet, including mood swings, eczema and autism spectrum disorders. But if you think your child might have celiac disease or a severe gluten intolerance, it’s important to have him tested before changing his diet.
Be a detective
Just because a label or menu says something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s safe for celiacs, said Jerry Malitz, president of the D.C. Metro Celiac Organization.
French fries might be labeled as gluten-free on a menu, Malitz said, because they are made with potatoes. But if they are cooked in a fryer that has been used for onion rings or fried shrimp that are coated in flour, there can be cross-contamination.
“A food might be gluten-free, but nothing about its preparation, storage or anything else is gluten-free,” Malitz said. “That’s a very big issue.”
The same goes for checking labels in a grocery store.
Make your own food
Gluten-free products are more expensive than their traditional counterparts. Parents can save by buying in bulk or buying the whole grains and processing them at home.
Cindy Miller, of Boring, Ore., uses a grain mill to grind her favorite flours. “It doesn’t take a lot of time to put it through a mill,” said Miller, whose son, Luke, is 17 and follows a gluten-free diet because doctors noticed he wasn’t growing properly and suspected he might have celiac disease. “You can put it in the freezer and then you have whatever you want to make corn bread, hot breakfast cereal or pancakes.”
Kelly Courson, a holistic health coach in New York who has celiac disease and writes the blog Celiac Chicks, recommends that families who are used to eating a lot of bread invest in a bread machine.
“You can have the ingredients measured and ready to go in bags so you only have to add yeast and water,” Courson said. “It really helps if you are pinching pennies.”
Keep a stash of gluten-free cupcakes or cookies in the freezer at home and in the school cafeteria or office so your child will be able to have a treat at birthday celebrations.
“Anticipate where they’re going and what they might need,” said Taylor-Klaus. All three of Taylor-Klaus’ children and her husband are gluten-free for various issues, including eczema and difficulty focusing. “Anticipate what you can do to normalize it for them so they’re not different from everyone else. It may be a different dessert, but it’s still a dessert.”
Get the school on board
Talk to your child’s teacher and the school nurse, especially with younger children, and enlist their help. Maria Roglieri of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., said the nurse at her daughter’s school made arrangements for her to talk to other parents of gluten-free kids, to share information.
Roglieri’s daughter, Sara Friedman, 16, wrote the “Gluten-Free Guide to Washington, D.C.,” when she was 13, and Roglieri edited the book. Sara’s celiac disease was diagnosed when she was 6. Roglieri also suggests seeing whether the school will group two or more gluten-free kids together in the same class, so they have a buddy with similar dietary restrictions.
Emphasize unprocessed foods
Most of what passes for kid-friendly in restaurants is loaded with gluten: chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, burgers and hot dogs or spaghetti and meatballs.
Although there are gluten-free versions of most of these kids’ staples readily available, Kelly Dorfman, a nutritionist, thinks the focus of a gluten-free diet should be on whole, unprocessed foods. Load up on fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, meats, cheeses and other healthful foods instead of focusing on the gluten-free versions of your favorite processed foods, Dorfman said.
Dorfman suggests making a different vegetable every night for two weeks and telling your child she has to have at least two bites, to help her get acclimated to eating a variety of foods.
Do it as a family
Going gluten-free with your child, at least for a month, can ease the transition, Dorfman said.
“You don’t want the child to feel like something’s wrong with him,” Dorfman said. “Doing it together, and helping the family bond that way, is really important.”