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When Should a Family Go Gluten-Free?

March 31, 2014
Original Author: Christa Bigue


The typical signs that a change might be necessary are frequent stomach aches and/or diarrhea, eczema and itchy skin, slow or no growth, and behavioral issues.

Amy Fothergill

author of The Warm Kitchen

Gluten-free is becoming a very popular concept. There are aisles in grocery stores dedicated to gluten-free products and more and more children and adults are discovering a sensitivity to gluten in their diets.  But many still wonder … should my family go gluten-free?

A gluten-free diet excludes foods containing gluten, which is a protein composite found in wheat. While a gluten-free diet is the only medically accepted treatment for the autoimmune disorder celiac disease, those who are gluten intolerant, including children, may also benefit from a gluten-free diet.

“The typical signs that a change might be necessary are frequent stomach aches and/or diarrhea, eczema and itchy skin, slow or no growth, and behavioral issues,” explains gluten-free expert Amy Fothergill, who teaches cooking classes, consults on gluten-free issues for families and restaurants and recently published a gluten-free cookbook.

Being gluten intolerant can often mean a person is wheat intolerant as well as suffer from the related inflammatory skin condition dermatitis herpetiformis. Some people can have a true allergy to wheat not to gluten. Wheat allergy and gluten sensitivity are not the same conditions.

Symptoms to watch for

Medical science is just now beginning to recognize that some people who definitely don’t have celiac disease nonetheless definitely do experience nasty symptoms when they consume foods that contain gluten, according to data from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Symptoms of gluten intolerance include bloating, abdominal discomfort or pain, diarrhea, muscular disturbances and bone or joint pain.

While symptoms like these may be the result of other underlying issues such as food allergies like wheat or celiac disease, it’s important to consult with a doctor to rule these out with tests first before considering your child is gluten intolerant.

“If you suspect gluten may be affecting your child in any way, do your research first so you know what some of the symptoms are and common autoimmune disorders,” says Fothergill. “Then, before you do anything else, like change your child’s diet, talk to your doctor. You may need to see a gastroenterologist. You can potentially get a celiac blood test done very easily but these aren’t always accurate. When a child has celiac disease it is important to get them healed properly. A child may not have celiac disease to require a gluten-free diet.”

Gluten-free for kids 

Fothergill began a gluten-free diet for her daughter when she was a preschooler shortly after she just launched her home-based business, The Family Chef. Her daughter had persistent eczema but after going on a strict gluten-free diet her skin greatly improved. She later had her daughter tested for allergies and discovered she was also very sensitive to dairy.

“We eliminated diary and I started treating her more like she was gluten intolerant,” said Fothergill. “Within a few weeks, she stopped having occasional breakouts. Her skin is back to baby soft.”

Inspired by her daughter and many years of cooking experience, Fothergill started to experiment with ingredients and techniques until she found the right balance of texture and flavor in gluten-free dishes. She was able to create recipes that not only satisfied her daughter but also everyone that tried them.

“If you think anything about your child isn’t normal, that could be a reason for a gluten-free diet or just a diet change,” she said. “In my 10 years of mothering, this is what I have learned.”

In an attempt to relate to her daughter and the customers who were taking her gluten-free cooking classes, Fothergill decided to remove gluten from her own diet. Within a week, she felt lighter, had better digestion and was sleeping better. After a month, she realized going gluten-free was good for her as well.

“I have tested negative for celiac disease for both times I wasn’t eating gluten. Most people, like myself, think that if you have celiac disease you have to have severe symptoms. That is not true,” she said. “There is a spectrum of symptoms; some people have no symptoms at all.”

How to go gluten-free

Slowly Eliminate Gluten.

To start eliminating gluten from your child’s diet, begin by replacing favorite foods with gluten-free options. Eventually move to changing the diet completely, making it consist of fruits and veggies and protein.

“We now eat much healthier because we can’t eat convenience foods. We often have salad with or for dinner, plain grilled meats, steamed veggies and simple grains like brown rice. Do what works for your child and try to be positive,” says Fothergill.

Create access to gluten-free products.

She also recommends trying to find out which gluten-free brands people like and where you can buy them. More mainstream grocery stores like Safeway are carrying gluten-free products. Some stores like Trader Joes and Whole Foods will allow you to return products if you don’t like them.

Make a household change.

If a child is showing signs of being gluten intolerant, Fothergill recommends making the entire household gluten-free.

“It’s very difficult for a child to feel different in their own home. At first I made two meals but eventually started cooking gluten-free for all of us. We have gone back and forth but when three of us became gluten-free for different reasons, it was time to make the big change,” says Fothergill.

Go for it 100 percent.

It also helps with preventing cross contamination so cutting boards, knives and toasters have no gluten on them. Also, gluten can be in things other than food like lotions, hand soap, shampoo, medicine, and vitamins, to name a few, so checking labels is key.

“If you are going to try a gluten-free diet, you have to be in it 100 percent. Assume the first week you won’t be able to do this, something will be forgotten. You have to look at everything and every label,” she says. “Then do it for at least one month and see the results.”

Attempt a gluten challenge.

Trying a gluten challenge is also an exercise to help show if a person has a gluten sensitivity by intentionally consuming gluten after a period of being gluten-free. Trial and error and persistence is crucial to finding out if going gluten-free is right for your child, says Fothergill.

“Gluten can cause inflammation of our body, the gut, skin, brain and organs,” she says. “I think the key is to say, as a parent, something is not right with my child, and I want to figure it out. Most doctors will try to fix the symptom; I wanted answers for the cause. It really took me six years of trial and error.”