Whether it's for diagnosed celiac disease or suspected gluten sensitivity, many parents are switching their children to gluten-free diets. Going gluten-free doesn't have to be scary.
"Parents are afraid to even try it because it sounds like it would be too hard," said Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a parenting coach in Atlanta whose daughter benefits from a gluten-free diet. "I was one of those parents. I'm not saying it's not hard. But it became so much easier to manage that the trade-off was far superior to what I thought it would be."
The trade-off is even more pronounced for kids with celiac disease, an inability to digest gluten, a protein found in products that contain wheat, barley or rye. It affects about one in 100 people in Europe and North America, according to the National Institutes of Health. The Mayo Clinic estimates that the number of people affected has quadrupled in the past 50 years, though the reason is unclear.
There is no treatment for celiac disease - which can cause bloating, diarrhea and constipation in some patients and mood swings and neurological symptoms in others - but it can be managed by eliminating gluten from your diet.
Here are some suggestions from experts and parents of gluten-free children on how to make the change for you and your child.
CONSULT A DOCTOR
There are many reasons parents consider putting a child on a gluten-free diet, including mood swings, eczema and autism spectrum disorders. But if you think your child might have celiac disease or a severe gluten intolerance, it's important to have him tested before changing his diet.
"Testing for celiac disease is only effective if the child is on a diet which contains gluten," said John Snyder, chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
BE A DETECTIVE
Just because a label or menu says something is gluten-free doesn't mean it's safe for celiacs, said Jerry Malitz, president of the D.C. Metro Celiac Organization.
In addition to reading the ingredients, parents need to see how the food is prepared and stored. French fries might be labeled as gluten-free on a menu, Malitz said, because they are made with potatoes. But if they are cooked in a fryer that has been used for onion rings or fried shrimp that are coated in flour, there can be cross-contamination.
The same goes for checking labels in a grocery store. Even if something is labeled as gluten-free, Malitz said, parents need to look at where and how the food was prepared to decide whether it's safe.
MAKE YOUR OWN FOOD
Although gluten-free products are much more readily available now than they were a few years ago, they are more expensive than their traditional counterparts. Parents can save by buying in bulk or buying the whole grains and processing them at home.
Cindy Miller, of Boring, Ore., uses a grain mill to grind her favorite flours. "It doesn't take a lot of time to put it through a mill," said Miller, whose son, Luke, is 17 and follows a gluten-free diet because doctors noticed he wasn't growing properly and suspected he may have celiac disease. "You can put it in the freezer and then you have whatever you want to make corn bread, hot breakfast cereal or pancakes."
Kelly Courson, a holistic health coach in New York who has celiac disease and writes the blog Celiac Chicks, recommends that families who are used to eating a lot of bread invest in a bread machine. "You can have the ingredients measured and ready to go in bags so you only have to add yeast and water."
Keep a stash of gluten-free cupcakes or cookies in the freezer at home and in the school cafeteria or office so your child will be able to have a treat at birthday celebrations.
"Anticipate where they're going and what they might need," said Taylor-Klaus. All three of Taylor-Klaus's children and her husband are gluten-free for various issues, including eczema and difficulty focusing. "Anticipate what you can doto normalize it for them so they're not different from everyone else. It may be a different dessert, but it's still a dessert."
GIVE UNPROCESSED FOODS A SHOT
There are gluten-free versions of most of the restaurant food kids love - like chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, burgers and hot dogs - but Kelly Dorfman, a nutritionist, thinks the focus of a gluten-free diet should be on whole, unprocessed foods.
Instead, load up on fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, meats, cheeses and other healthful foods.
Dorfman suggests making a different vegetable every night for two weeks and telling your child that she has to have at least two bites, to help her get acclimated to eating a variety of foods.
DO IT AS A FAMILY
Going gluten-free with your child, at least for the first month, can ease the transition to a new diet, Dorfman said.
"You don't want the child to feel like something's wrong with him," Dorfman said.
"Doing it together, and helping the family bond that way, is really important."