Just a few years ago, most people had never even heard of gluten. Now, chatter about the protein that's found in wheat and other grains seems to be everywhere. And not just on celebrity Twitter feeds -- but on playgrounds, playdates, autism message boards, and mommy blogs as parents are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon. Some are eliminating gluten to treat celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that's on the rise in both kids and adults. But others say that switching to a gluten-free diet changed their child's behavior and quality of life for the better -- even dramatically improving the symptoms of autism. We'll help you decide if there could be a benefit for your child too.
Gluten gives pizza crust its stretchiness and bread a puffy texture. You'll find it in foods like pasta, cereals, crackers, cookies, and grains such as couscous, bulgur, bran, and spelt. (Most brands of oats are not gluten-free because they can become contaminated during processing and transport.) Gluten is in many less obvious places too, like soy sauce, candy, lunch meat, marinades, vitamins, and lip balm.
We've been eating gluten for centuries, so why is it suddenly an issue for an increasing number of people? The grain our grandparents ate was very different from what we eat today, explains Alessio Fasano, M.D., medical director of the Center for Celiac Research at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, in Boston. Modern grains have a much higher concentration of gluten, thanks to selective breeding to get higher crop yields. Our overuse of antibiotics could also be changing the bacteria in our gut and making it more difficult for us to manage gluten. And the hyper-sanitized environment (think antibacterial everything) may be signaling some people's immune system to see gluten as an enemy.
That kind of immune-system misfire is exactly what happens to people with celiac disease: Gluten sets off a reaction that damages the walls of their intestines, causing symptoms like stomach pain and vomiting. The injured intestines can't digest and absorb nutrients properly, leading to weight loss and serious problems such as anemia and low bone mass.
Ruth Milligan took her son Joseph to the pediatrician when he was 4 because of unexplained vomiting; the doctor also noticed his paleness, distended belly, and slowed growth. After Joseph was diagnosed with celiac disease and stopped eating gluten, his GI problems disappeared and he gained a much-needed pound a month. "He finally became an energetic kid," says the Columbus, Ohio, mom.
Doctors screen for celiac with a blood test to look for antibodies against gluten and then diagnose it with an endoscopy and intestinal biopsy to check for damage. However, some kids who test negative may still have trouble with gluten. A fairly new diagnosis called gluten sensitivity is given to someone who has the physical symptoms of celiac but none of the intestinal injury or antibodies against gluten. It's estimated that as many as 6 percent of the population has it (compared with 1 percent for celiac).
If digestive conditions like colitis are ruled out, a child feels better on a gluten-free diet, and symptoms return after reintroducing gluten, he's considered gluten sensitive.
When Jennifer DeRouen's son Mitchell was 2, he was irritable, frail, waking frequently at night, struggling with language development, and projectile vomiting. Though his celiac test came back negative, a doctor thought that Mitchell might have gluten intolerance. DeRouen, of The Woodlands, Texas, says she removed gluten (and dairy) from his diet, and he became a different kid within a matter of days. The physical problems stopped, and his mood and speech greatly improved. Though she was relieved they found the root of Mitchell's problem, it's frustrating that among teachers and parents his gluten sensitivity isn't taken as seriously as food allergies are. "People think we're just making some kind of wacky health choice," she says.