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Is Gluten-free Good?

By: Elizabeth M. Felder, MD

Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding behavioral therapy or counseling, please contact Connections to make an appointment.

The gluten-free diet is a critical treatment for celiac disease, which is a rare gastrointestinal disorder. However, consumers without celiac disease purchase the majority of gluten-free products, and many place their children on the diet without adequate knowledge of how it may affect them. It has become a recent diet “fad,” but is it really a healthy one?

“The increasing popularity of the [gluten-free diet] has important implications for children,” Norelle R. Reilly, MD, from the division of pediatric gastroenterology and the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, wrote in a recent commentary published in The Journal of Pediatrics. “Parents sometimes place their children on a [gluten-free diet] in the belief that it relieves symptoms, can prevent [celiac disease] or is a healthy alternative without previous testing for [celiac disease] or consultation with a dietitian.”

Many online blogs, articles or books promoting a gluten-free diet do not accurately describe the health and social consequences of starting a child on a gluten-free diet. One of the most common misconceptions regarding the gluten-free diet is that it is a healthy lifestyle choice with no disadvantages. The reality is that the diet provides no known health benefits to patients without celiac disease, wheat allergy or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Also, gluten-free products may be higher in fat and sugar and lack nutrients. This can lead to a number of health problems in those following the diet without a physician’s or dietitian’s guidance. A child on a gluten-free diet may not be able to participate in activities with friends due to the restrictions of the diet. Social isolation, inconvenience and reduced quality of life have been documented in children on a gluten-free diet and gluten-free products may also be more expensive.

Another common misunderstanding is that gluten is intrinsically toxic to healthy individuals, but there is no to data support this. For most people, gluten proteins pass through the gastrointestinal tract without leading to disease. Recent data, as indicated in Dr. Reilly’s commentary in The Journal of Pediatrics, shows that neither delayed nor early gluten introduction affects an individual’s risk for developing celiac disease.

Currently, the only medical indications for eliminating dietary gluten or wheat are celiac disease and wheat allergy. It is not yet clear how many children are affected by non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Given the substantial nutritional and quality of life risks, a gluten-free diet in otherwise healthy children may carry more risk than benefit. An elimination diet could affect testing for gluten-related diseases, causing false negative results.

According to research published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, studies have suggested that there is a small group of children with ADHD or autism who appear to have gluten sensitivity, and these children may benefit some from a gluten-free diet. Because this diet has nutritional risks, is difficult and expensive and can lead to difficulties in social settings, it is best to consult a physician or dietician before beginning a gluten-free diet on your own.

 

Information on this page should be utilized as a guide, not medical advice. If you feel you need to speak with someone regarding behavioral therapy or counseling, please contact Connections to make an appointment.