Odds are many that people buying gluten-free foods are unfamiliar with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that used to be the primary reason for avoiding gluten. In spite of a dearth of science supporting the growing trend for others to avoid gluten, the numbers of those adopting a gluten-free diet is swelling and the markets are filling with a glut of products catering to them. But does eschewing gluten make sense for everyone, especially children? A new article in the Journal of Pediatrics says no
Last year, an estimated 25 percent of Americans reported knowingly consuming gluten-free foods, according to market research. The market for gluten-free products more than doubled from 2013 to 2015. It now brings in more than $4 billion annually in the U.S. as food makers try to capitalize on the trend with breads, pasta and other foods that do not contain gluten.
Gluten-free diets are necessary for people who have been diagnosed as having celiac disease. If they consume gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye as well as barley – they risk damage in their small intestine.
Technically, however, only 1 percent of people in the U.S. have celiac disease. While the raw numbers of people with celiac have increased in recent years, largely due to greater awareness leading to better detection, that has not led to the boom in merchandise hitting market shelves and the glut of diners avoiding gluten for no medical reason.
Consumers wanting to eat healthier are viewing the gluten-free labels on products as signs they are choosing something healthier. Surveys have confirmed the motivation for people changing that aspect of their diet (cutting gluten as opposed to cutting sugar or other changes).
However, there are a number of misconceptions regarding gluten and going avoiding its consumption. As Dr. Norelle R. Reilly, the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center pediatric gastroenterologist who wrote the journal article noted, people assume that adopting a gluten-free diet is merely a healthier, lifestyle choice with no disadvantages. But, there are not any proven benefits to health for people who do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
People choosing to avoid gluten are not consulting their doctor or considering any nutritional issues that might arise. An even bigger concern is parents who are placing their children on a gluten-free diet. Reilly warns that it “could be damaging to their health.” She added, “There’s a side to the story of the gluten-free diet that’s not often in information that’s readily accessible to families and pediatricians” – nutrition.
Eliminating a food group from the diet of a child without appropriate substitutions increases the risk of missing out on necessary vitamins and minerals, malnutrition and poor growth. Many replacement foods are not as nutritious, very processed and higher in fat or sugar. Additionally, a diet lacking in gluten can be fiber deficient.
Reilly indicated that parents also should be discouraged from putting their child on a gluten-restricted diet just because a family member has celiac disease. A wheat-free diet before celiac disease is diagnosed will obscure any signs of the disease, making it harder to discern if the child does have it.
The glut of gluten-free foods is capitalizing on the trend for many to change their diet, presumably for the better. However, while childhood obesity, overconsumption of sugar and other concerns are appropriate for parents to use to guide their offspring’s diets, many medical experts now suggest that avoiding gluten is not one of them, unless medically warranted.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Journal of Pediatrics: The Gluten-Free Diet: Recognizing Fact, Fiction, and Fad
TIME: 4 Reasons Why Your Kids Should Not Be Gluten Free
CBC News: Gluten-free isn’t healthy choice for most children, pediatrician says
CBC News: Gluten-free market booming, but researchers aren’t sold
CBS News: Could a gluten-free diet in kids do more harm than good?
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