Should Your Baby Be Gluten-Free? And What Is Celiac Disease?

The gluten-free diet is really popular with Americans. In fact, depending on what statistics you look at, as many as 30 percent of American adults are going gluten-free. What about gluten-free for babies? That may sound crazy, but it might not be, if your baby is at risk for celiac disease.

Reasons Why Adults Go Gluten-Free

Of the 30 percent of people avoiding gluten, only 1 percent have celiac disease. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, and barley, causes serious damage to your intestine that can only be treated with a gluten-free diet.

The vast majority of gluten-free Americans avoid gluten because they are gluten-sensitive or for other health reasons. Gluten sensitivity has symptoms in common with celiac disease, like cramping, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, and headache. However, gluten sensitivity does not cause any damage and does not show up on any diagnostic tests.

Going gluten-free for health reasons is not supported by any evidence. Wheat, rye, and barley can be important sources of whole grains, which are healthy. A gluten free diet offers no health benefits and will not help you lose weight. In fact, many gluten-free foods have more sugar, fats, and calories to add flavor. They are also more expensive.

Why Should Babies and Children Be Gluten-Free?

The only reason is to avoid celiac disease. Celiac disease runs in families. Gluten sensitivity does not. About 30 percent of children are born with genes that put them at higher risk for celiac disease. Since only 1 percent of people have the disease, you need more than just the genes. You must have some other risk factors that triggers the disease.

One of those risk factors may be early exposure to gluten. This was first suspected in Sweden. In 1984 through 1996, there was an epidemic of celiac disease. Researchers suspect it was due to changes in the diet guidelines for Swedish babies, that allowed more gluten in baby food.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Society supports other research suggesting that some children could avoid celiac disease by being gluten-free early. The study followed 6,600 children in Sweden, Finland, Germany, and the U.S. from birth through age 5. All these children had blood testing showing they were at risk genetically for celiac disease. Children who ate 2 grams or more of gluten daily (which is only one slice of bread) had a 75 percent higher risk of developing celiac disease than children who ate less gluten, even though they were all at risk.

Could You Have Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. That means your immune system attacks normal parts of your body. In celiac disease, exposure to gluten triggers an attack on the cells of your small intestine. Celiac disease can cause all kinds of symptoms. The only way to diagnose the disease is with a blood test and a biopsy from the intestine, which is done by placing a tube down through the stomach, not by surgery. Many people, maybe most people, with the disease have never been diagnosed. If you have been avoiding gluten because you feel better off gluten, you could actually have celiac disease. Here are some of the signs and symptoms in adults:

  • Cramping
  • Belly pain
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Itchy skin rash
  • Mouth sores
  • Mood swings or anxiety
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Irregular periods in women

Talking to Your Child’s Doctor About Gluten

If you, your parent, or your sibling have been diagnosed with celiac disease, your baby has about a 10 percent chance of developing the disease. Children may start showing signs and symptoms at 6 to 9 months when gluten is introduced into the diet. They may also have a delayed start and not have signs or symptoms until toddler or teen years.

The Celiac Disease foundation recommends having your child checked for celiac disease if you have a family history of the disease or if your child has signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms in babies and toddlers can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Failure to grow and gain weight
  • Distended belly
  • Diarrhea with bad smelling stools

Diagnosis of celiac disease is the same for children as for adults. If your child has the genetic predisposition but not the disease, ask your child’s doctor if your child should avoid gluten. If your child has celiac disease, going gluten-free will prevent all the signs and symptoms of the disease. You child can still get the benefits of healthy whole grains from gluten-free grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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