How to eat gluten-free, by choice or necessity

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No pasta, no pastries, no bread. It may seem next to impossible to ditch these staples, but many parents are reducing or completely cutting these starches from their family’s diets as they adjust to gluten-free eating. 

It’s more common than most people think. In Canada, approximately one in 133 people suffer from celiac disease, a condition in which the body is unable to process gluten, a key ingredient found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. This means that one out of 133 people will need gluten-free foods in order to maintain a healthy weight, digestive system and good mood. (This doesn’t include kids with gluten sensitivities who have not yet been diagnosed.)

If you’re raising a kid who can’t eat gluten, then sending personal meals and desserts with your child to birthday parties and play dates may soon be the norm. And if gluten-rich foods are still on your menu, chances are you’ll have a child visiting some time soon who will need some extra care.

What’s All the Fuss?

Gluten-free is appearing on more menus and product labels lately, so what exactly is it? The dictionary defines gluten as “a tenacious elastic protein substance especially of wheat flour that gives cohesiveness to dough.” This sounds about right; try making pizza dough or bread without gluten and the texture and stickiness is different. I found this out the hard way when I tried to make waffles with gluten-free flour; it was a big mess!

While gluten can be found in many types of grains (wheat is the big one), you won’t find it in brown rice, quinoa, wild rice or corn. Amaranth, an ancient grain once found only in health food stores, is another gluten-free option becoming more available due to demand. 

Gluten intolerance and celiac disease (CD) are more prevalent today than they were in the first half of the 20th century, and you might wonder why. Research by Donald D. Kasarda, PhD, shows that since 1977 people are ingesting three times more vital gluten – a food additive – and as well, they are eating 25 percent more wheat products. With those combined conditions, along with changes in wheat genetics and agronomics, people who are genetically susceptible to CD or gluten intolerance have more opportunities for developing these conditions.

In the bestselling book Wheat Belly, cardiologist William Davis details the history of wheat and how it’s changed from the wheat of yesteryear. Dr. Davis advises people who want to lose their “wheat belly”, decrease their risk of diabetes, increase energy and lose weight should avoid any food containing wheat, and stick to foods such as vegetables, raw nuts, healthy oils and meats and cheese. Dr. Davis says that food made with wheat flour will raise blood sugar higher than nearly all other foods. Lose the wheat, lose the weight.

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by the consumption of gluten, and damages the lining of the bowel, resulting in a lack of absorption of nutrients such as vitamins, fats and protein. Basically, if your child eats foods containing gluten, her bowels will be damaged and she will have a multitude of health issues. Look for these specific signs and symptoms in children:

  • Abdominal pain (the number one symptom)
  • Decreased growth (the child is shorter than his classmates)
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Dental or enamel problems
  • Irritable or moody
  • Anemia

Symptoms in children will be slightly different from those in adults, especially growth issues.

Vancouver mom Andrea DeLong’s five-year old son Murdoch has celiac disease. “Murdoch was very thin – he hadn’t gained weight in a long time and his growth had slowed, he was starting to dip on the growth chart. He was also so tired after school; too tired. I thought that perhaps all-day kindergarten was too much,” says Andrea.

She noticed physical and emotional changes in her son and knew that something was not right. She kept pushing with doctors’ visits until she got a conclusive answer: celiac disease. 

If you think your child may have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, being on a gluten-free diet before the test can skew the results, according to the Mayo Clinic. You must have gluten in your system for a few months to properly test for the disease.

If your child tests negative for celiac disease but has problems digesting wheat, then he may have non-celiac gluten intolerance. As many as 300,000 Canadians suffer from celiac disease, but many are still undiagnosed. This inherited disease will not affect everyone with the gene; however, first degree relatives of a person who already has celiac disease have a 10 percent of chance of also having this condition (Andrea’s sisters are both gluten intolerant).

There is no specific age for celiac disease to come to light. According to the journal Pediatrics, children in Canada with celiac disease “present at all ages with a variety of symptoms and associated conditions; however delays in diagnosis are common.”

Allergy, Intolerance or Sensitivity?

With a food allergy, people develop antibodies, causing a person to experience symptoms that may seem similar to an allergic reaction. Gluten does not cause the body to release antibodies, so it cannot cause an allergic reaction. (Wheat is the allergen in a food allergy). According to Health Canada, a food intolerance is considered to be “a sensitivity that does not involve the individual’s immune system.” So while some parents may think that their children have a gluten allergy, it is technically an intolerance or sensitivity; the uncomfortable feelings originate in the gastrointestinal system rather than in the immune system.

Nonetheless, this intolerance leads your child to need a restricted diet, just like someone with celiac disease. Eliminating gluten will be necessary.

Choice or Necessity?

With all the buzz about gluten-free eating, you may hear parents saying that their kids can’t have gluten. For some it’s a choice, for others it’s a necessity. “Our home is gluten-free,” says Andrea. “We all eat the same foods. There are so many situations where Murdoch cannot eat what everyone else eats and I never want him to feel like that at home. I feel that my other two kids are benefiting from not eating too much gluten as well.”

Shopping and Dining Out

If your child can’t have gluten, the biggest challenge is feeding your family. Do you make separate meals? Shop at more expensive stores?

You will discover that gluten is in everything you used to eat. The grocery store may seem more alien to you now than if you were buying food on another planet. 

“So many foods and brands that I had once purchased were now forbidden. They were poison to my son. The place seemed foreign and scary,” recalls Andrea when she had to change the way she shopped after Murdoch’s diagnosis.

Luckily, grocery stores are now carrying more gluten-free alternatives: everything from pasta, to pizza dough, crackers and even flour are available to people with gluten sensitivities.

Dr. Michael Wald, founder and president of the Integrated Medicine and Nutrition Institute in New York, says Bob’s Red Mill, Cream Hill Estates, GF Harvest, Avena Foods, Legacy Valley and Gifts of Nature are good choices for gluten-free whole grain products. 

But just because you can buy products labelled “gluten-free” does not make them equally as healthy as their non-gluten counterparts.

“Unhealthy gluten-free alternatives include substitutes that contain no gluten, but refined and processed sugars like fructose, glucose, sucrose, saturated fats, trans fats, non-organic choices, and anything containing additives and preservatives, artificial colours and flavours,” says Dr. Wald.

Margaret Dron, founder and producer of The Gluten Free Expo – Canada’s largest gluten-free event – agrees. “Starch flours like tapioca starch, corn starch, rice starch, potato starch, etc. may also cause health issues due to their high glycemic index, and many processed gluten-free products are lower in fibre than their gluten containing versions.”

While gluten may seem like it’s a bad word, there are countless ways to work your child’s diet around it. With whole foods, well balanced meals and a little extra planning, your family can be eating gluten-free and feeling great.

To learn more about your body and gluten go to

Nicole Palacios, BSc, is a registered kinesiologist and personal trainer in Vancouver. She loves coming up with creative and delicious ways to bake without wheat or refined sugar.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2013.

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