What to Know About the Gluten Free Diet for Kids
As an inherited autoimmune disease, celiac disease can affect anyone at any age. That includes children.
Due to its wide range of symptoms and the fact that celiac reactions occur differently for everyone, it can be challenging to properly diagnose. That becomes an issue because prompt diagnosis is crucial for the treatment of celiac disease, particularly in children who have a higher risk for stunted growth and malnutrition.
In this article, we’ll explore the subject of celiac disease in children and provide insight into transitioning onto and maintaining a gluten free diet for kids.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease in Children
Celiac disease affects each individual differently, and there are more than 200 known symptoms that can occur in the digestive tract, the skin, and other parts of the body. While some people develop the disease as children, others do not experience symptoms until adulthood. The reason why the disease manifests earlier in some people than in others is still relatively unknown.
Though symptoms vary from one individual to another, there are some common signs of celiac disease to watch for in children. Here are some of the top symptoms:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Vomiting and nausea
- Foul-smelling or discolored stools
- Unexplained weight loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Delayed growth or puberty
- Short stature
- Behavioral problems and irritability
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Most children aren’t diagnosed with celiac disease until they are older than 6 months, but typically in the 2-to-3-year-old range. Symptoms are unlikely to develop any earlier because most children don’t have their first gluten exposure until they begin eating solid food more regularly around 6 months of age. Even then, only 20% to 30% of children with celiac disease exhibit stomach symptoms.
The most noticeable signs of celiac disease in children are decreased appetite, delayed growth or puberty, and a distended abdomen. It is common for children to be picky eaters, but children with celiac disease may avoid certain foods or have a lot appetite in general. Failure to thrive and delayed growth is often due to malnutrition, and a protruding potbelly is also a common sign.
If you notice any of the above symptoms or suspect your child could have celiac disease, contact your doctor as soon as possible. Getting a diagnosis and treatment plan from a certified professional is the only course of action. Below we’ll discuss how a pediatrician would go about determining the diagnosis, along with treating this autoimmune disease.
Treating Celiac Disease in Children
If your child is exhibiting signs of celiac disease, talk to your pediatrician about immediately screening for the disease. A simple blood test is all you need to rule out celiac disease, as long as the child is currently on a gluten-containing diet. If your child is already gluten free, the results of an antibody test are more likely to be negative or inconclusive. If your child tests positive for celiac disease antibodies, an endoscopy and tissue biopsy can confirm the diagnosis.
Once you’ve confirmed that your child has celiac disease, switching to a gluten free diet is the only form of treatment currently available. Depending on the results of your child’s bloodwork, your pediatrician may also recommend nutritional supplements to address specific deficiencies. With time, and with a healthy diet, however, many children recover from the symptoms and live perfectly healthy, normal lives with celiac disease.
Though celiac disease cannot be cured, following a gluten free diet generally produces good long-term results. Keep reading to learn some tips for transition your child onto a gluten free diet and for maintaining the diet long-term.
Gluten Free Alternatives for Kids
Cooking for children is always a challenge, but it becomes even more difficult when you have to cut entire categories of food out of the child’s diet. If your child has celiac disease, you may need to steer clear of easy options like sandwiches, boxed macaroni and cheese, and packaged snacks unless you can find gluten free alternatives.
The first thing you should do when your child is diagnosed with celiac disease is learn how to identify sources of gluten in food. The obvious sources are products made with wheat, barley, or rye, but gluten can hide in some unexpected places such as frozen dinners, store-bought sauces, condiments, and more.
To keep your child safe, you’ll also need to learn about gluten free alternatives. Here are some grain and flour alternatives to get you started:
- Almond flour
- Brown rice
- Cassava flour
- Coconut flour
- Corn flour
- Potato starch
- Soy flour
Even though these grains and grain alternatives are naturally gluten free, you still need to be mindful of cross-contamination. If your child is extremely sensitive to gluten, only purchase products that are certified gluten free – this means that they’ve been tested to a maximum of 20ppm gluten.
On top of these gluten free grains and flours, there are plenty of whole foods that are naturally gluten free. For example, all meat, poultry, and seafood are naturally free from gluten as long as they do not have additives such as marinades, seasonings, bread crumbs, etc. Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices are gluten free as well. You’ll also find that many baking staples like sugar, cornstarch, baking powder, and vanilla extract do not contain gluten. However, we always recommend checking the label to be 100% sure.
The options available to your child will vary depending on his age. If you’re still breastfeeding, you’ll need to strictly adhere to a gluten free diet yourself to protect your child. A similar recommendation if your child is taking formula — double-check the label to make sure it is gluten free. For toddlers and older children, you have more options available, but you should always work with your pediatrician to keep your child’s diet balanced.
Simple Gluten Free Snack Ideas
Now that you have a better understanding of the gluten free diet, you may be thinking about ways to put it into action. Your growing child needs a healthy and balanced diet to sustain his growth and development, but three meals a day may not be enough – growing kids need snacks.
Here are some simple gluten free snack ideas to keep on hand for your child:
- Fresh fruits (sliced) like bananas, apples, and grapes
- Applesauce, homemade or store-bought
- Hardboiled eggs
- Sliced veggies with hummus or ranch dressing
- Corn chips with salsa or guacamole
- Gluten free crackers
- Gluten free cookies and “on the go” snack bars
- Gluten free honeygrams
When you are at home, it’s easy to keep some of these snacks in your refrigerator. When your child is at school or spending time with friends, things might not be so simple. It is important to educate your child about her condition so she can make safe choices on his own. You should also provide healthy gluten free snacks to send with her to school, after school activities, and on other outings. Packaged gluten free snack packs like the delicious varieties Schär has available are great for this purpose.
Tips for Packing Gluten Free Lunches for Kids
As the parent of a child with celiac disease, it is your job to make sure your child has safe, healthy food options when he is at school. This means talking to your child’s teacher as well as the school’s principal – you may even want to sit down with the head cook to make sure they understand your child’s restrictions. If you want to avoid the hassle of making sure your child has options at lunch, you may just want to make his lunch at home.
Here are some simple tips for packing gluten free lunches for your child:
- Gather an assortment of kid-friendly gluten free lunch recipes and try them out at home to get a feel for what your child likes.
- Test out different gluten free breads to see what’s available at your local store and what fares best in a packed lunch. Schär has one of the largest varieties of gluten free bread — multigrain, white bread, deli style, rolls, baguettes, and much more.
- Make your child’s lunch “fun” so she doesn’t worry about being different from her classmates – cut her fruits and veggies into fun shapes or throw in some extras she can share with friends. Make the dietary change a positive experience and your child will want to follow it on their own.
- Plan a whole week’s worth of packed lunches at once and do the prep work on the weekend, so you don’t have to worry about running out of time during the week.
- Get your child involved in preparing her own lunch, so she is more excited to eat it and less concerned about being different from her classmates. In doing so, make them aware of things such as cross-contamination and teaching them more in-depth about the gluten free diet.
Transitioning into a gluten free diet doesn’t have to be challenging but can be particularly difficult for a child, especially when they don’t understand why it is necessary (especially when their friends are eating differently from them). Educating your child about their celiac disease is important, but it is also important to stay positive and to show your child that it isn’t necessarily bad to be different, it’s what makes them unique.