By Dr. Bassam Younes, pediatric gastroenterologist at CHOC Children’s
In recent years, gluten-free diets have risen in popularity and gluten-free products become more readily available—but not everyone who puts themselves or their children on a gluten-free diet has a medical reason for doing so. About 30 percent of the US population is on a gluten-free diet, but all patients requiring this diet (celiac, gluten-free sensitivity, etc.) combined are less than 30 percent of the US population.
Shouldn’t everyone just go gluten-free?
Many people assume that since gluten can have such strong negative effects on some of us, that it would be safer if we all just avoided gluten. Wrong.
Gluten-free foods may be safe to eat, but they’re not calorie-free. Many gluten-free foods and snacks are higher in fat and calories. Also, very few gluten-free products are enriched with essential vitamins and minerals that most gluten-containing products contain. This means if you’re on a gluten-free diet not managed by a registered dietitian, you could be missing out on essential nutrients your body needs. At CHOC, our team of pediatric gastroenterologists works in tandem with registered dietitians to care for children who require a gluten-free diet.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). It can be found in many types of foods, but is primarily made up of two different types of proteins:
- Gliadin- gives bread the ability to rise
- Glutenin- responsible for dough’s elasticity, acting as a glue to hold the food together, affecting the chewiness and maintaining the shape of baked products
Here’s a few cases where I would recommend a gluten-free diet to my patients:
If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, it means you have an autoimmune reaction to gluten. Whenever you eat something containing gluten, your small intestine is hypersensitive to that gluten, which leads to difficulty digesting food. Some common symptoms of celiac disease are diarrhea, decreased appetite, stomachache and bloating, poor growth, and weight loss.
Many kids are diagnosed with celiac disease when they’re between 6 months and 2 years old, which is when most kids get their first taste of gluten in foods. Girls are twice as likely to have this disorder than boys.
For some people, the problems start slowly and the symptoms may be terrible one week and not as bad the next. Because of this, some people aren’t diagnosed with celiac disease until they’re older. The problem is chronic, which means that although symptoms may come and go, people who have celiac disease will always have it.
If celiac disease is not treated, patients will develop weight loss and malabsorption (a condition that prevents the absorption of nutrients through the small intestine).
No one is sure why celiac disease happens, but it appears to run in families. You have a five percent to 10 percent chance of getting celiac disease if someone in your family has it. Others at higher risk for celiac disease include those with Type I diabetes, an autoimmune thyroid or liver disease, Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), Williams syndrome, Turner syndrome, IGA deficiency or juvenile chronic arthritis. If your child falls into this at-risk group, they should be tested for celiac disease even if they don’t currently show symptoms. Celiac disease can harm the digestive system if no obvious symptoms are present.
Some children with celiac disease do not respond to the Hepatitis B vaccine. They will respond to the vaccine once they are on a gluten free diet. If your child was vaccinated for Hepatitis B prior to their celiac disease diagnosis and starting their gluten-free diet, they may need to be revaccinated for Hepatitis B. Consult your pediatrician about your child’s vaccination history.
In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for celiac disease may include blood work or a biopsy.
The only treatment for celiac disease is a lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.
You might be hypersensitive to wheat proteins without having celiac disease. People living with a wheat allergy have an immune reaction to the proteins found in wheat. A type of white blood cell attacks the wheat, alerting the body that there is a problem. Reactions can occur within a few minutes to a few hours, and can include nausea, abdominal pain, itching, swelling of the lips and tongue, trouble breathing or anaphylaxis. People with wheat allergies cannot ingest wheat, but they have no trouble ingesting gluten from non-wheat sources.
Children with a wheat allergy may eventually outgrow it, but the only treatment is eating a wheat-free diet.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not well-defined, but it is not an autoimmune response (like Celiac disease) or immune response (like a wheat allergy). There are no tests to diagnose a gluten sensitivity, but your doctor can do a biopsy or allergy test to rule out Celiac disease and wheat allergy. If a child’s symptoms improve by following a gluten-free diet, then gluten sensitivity may be diagnosed.
The only treatment for non-celiac gluten sensitivity is adhering to a gluten-free diet.