It’s no surprise that many parents are asking themselves this question. With so much media attention given to gluten-free diets, it’s tempting to believe that delaying its introduction to your baby or avoiding it altogether will help prevent celiac disease or other gluten-related disorders. But chances are, that’s not the case.
What is gluten and is it harmful for your baby? Gluten is a type of plant protein found in some grains like wheat, barley, and rye. It is also a common food additive used to improve the texture of a variety of processed foods from deli meats to ketchup. Some children develop an autoimmune reaction to gluten called celiac disease and need to avoid it even in the smallest amounts since consumption of gluten leads to intestinal damage and compromised absorption of nutrients. As a result, these children may develop symptoms like gas, intestinal pain, constipation, diarrhea, or weight loss, and long-term health complications like osteoporosis, neurological problems, and anemia. Celiac disease can be diagnosed with a blood test and endoscopy. Avoiding gluten is the only treatment available currently.
Another gluten related disorder, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, does not produce antibodies and intestinal damage and cannot be diagnosed with the same tests, but it triggers similar symptoms that resolve once gluten has been removed from the diet. Finally, an allergy to wheat can be diagnosed with skin prick tests, wheat- specific IgE blood testing, and a clinical food challenge. It is also managed by removing gluten-containing foods from the diet since the allergic reaction is trig- gered by exposure to wheat proteins. Some signs of wheat allergy include abdom- inal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, skin rashes, runny nose, and conjunctivitis.
If you suspect that your child has celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, ora wheat allergy, make sure to discuss relevant tests with your doctor. You may alsoneed to speak to a dietitian to help you follow a restrictive wheat or gluten-free dietwhile meeting your child’s nutritional needs.
Should healthy kids avoid gluten? Gluten is harmless for the vast majority of children who do not have any symptoms of gluten-related disorders. In fact, avoiding it may lead to insufficient intake of certain nutrients, such as B vitamins and iron, found in fortified wheat products like breads and cereals. Besides, although many gluten-free products have a “health halo”, they may have more added sugars and fat than their wheat counterparts and cost more money to boot.
When is the best time to introduce gluten into your baby’s diet? The American Academy of Pediatrics has not released any official recommendations concerning the timing of introduction of gluten in order to cut the risk of gluten intolerance in the future. Neither introducing gluten early nor delaying its introduction seems to help prevent celiac disease in the future. So the short answer is, introduce it when- ever you want, but know that for most babies there is no reason to wait.
If you have a strong history of gluten intolerance in your family, make sure to talk to your doctor to discuss the best way to introduce gluten into your baby’s diet. If gluten is safe for your baby, but you still feel it is best to avoid it, make sure to explore a wide selection of gluten-free whole grains such as quinoa, millet, rice, teff, buckwheat, amaranth, and corn rather than stocking up on gluten-free processed treats like cookies and granola bars. Strive to eat whole foods free of gluten, not gluten-free processed foods.