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Why Putting Your Kid on a Gluten-Free Diet Is Risky

The Short of It

Do you think a diet free of gluten will benefit your kids' health? Think again.

The Lowdown

Gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular over the last few years. In fact, a 2015 survey found that 25 percent of Americans now consume foods without gluten, which is up from just 8 percent in 2013. That's a pretty big jump! Especially when you consider that less than 1 percent of people in the U.S. actually have celiac disease (CD)—the immune condition that makes people sick if they eat gluten—and there's no scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet brings health benefits to anyone who doesn't have celiac, a wheat allergy or a nonceliac gluten sensitivity.

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Experts say the health benefits associated with going gluten-free are actually a myth, and now they have issued a warning that—at least when it comes to kids—a gluten-free diet may be doing more harm than good.

"Out of concern for their children's health, parents sometimes place their children on a gluten-free diet in the belief that it relieves symptoms, can prevent CD, or is a healthy alternative, without prior testing for CD or consultation with a dietitian," said pediatric gastroenterologist Dr. Norelle R. Reilly, author of a new commentary paper in "The Journal of Pediatrics." "There is no evidence to support a [gluten-free diet] for asymptomatic children without CD or for delaying gluten introduction to infants to prevent CD."

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And not only that—gluten-free packaged foods are often higher in fat and sugar, leading some kids to become obese or overweight. Many are not fortified with vitamins and minerals either, which can cause nutritional deficiencies, and gluten-free products are usually more expensive. And, perhaps most disturbing of all, kids who are forced to follow a gluten-free regimen sometimes report feeling socially isolated because of their diet.

The Upshot

Obviously for those who need it, a gluten-free diet is not a trend, nor is it optional. But for those who are choosing to put their kids on such a restrictive diet, this paper should certainly give them a reason to reconsider.

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Reilly admits there are still unanswered questions worthy of investigating, but in the meantime, she says doctors should recommend gluten-free diets judiciously, and patients who self-prescribe such a regimen for their kids should be properly schooled on the myths about gluten, the lack of proven benefits, and the potential risks.

"Health care providers may not be able to end the gluten-free diet fad," she wrote in her findings. "But they can certainly begin to play a larger role in educating patients."

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