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Charity Curley Mathews Headshot

When to Worry About Gluten, and Why I Don't

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Dear gluten,

There is no room on the list for you. When it comes to things to worry about, we're all full up here with things like SIDS, drowning at pool parties and how to raise our kids to someday be those amazing adult siblings who want to take vacations together. So, I'm sorry, gluten. To be honest, you do freak me out, but I just can't worry about you right now -- and here is why.

No one in my family seems to be sensitive to it. And the reassuring fact is, the majority of us are in the same boat. "Most kids and adults don't have a problem processing gluten. It's estimated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population has Celiac disease, and about 6-7 percent of the population has non-celiac gluten sensitivity," Carrie Dennett, a Seattle Times nutrition columnist and graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington, told me in an email interview. That makes me feel better, but here's the part that let my shoulders finally stop tensing up: "There's no evidence that people who don't fall into one of these two groups should avoid gluten."

OK, but I still keep hearing about it everywhere. Are you off gluten? Should your kids be off it? Gwyneth Paltrow took her family off and wrote a whole book about it. And it's even at the movies, like this scene from This Is 40.

DEBBIE: I'm getting rid of everything in the house that has gluten or sugar.
LARRY: Why? What's wrong with gluten?
DEBBIE: Gluten's really bad for you.
LARRY: I don't think so. It's wheat.

The fact is, many kids (and adults) have Celiac disease, or other food allergies and my concern is pretty simple: How do I know if my kids do too? What if I miss it? And wouldn't my whole family feel healthier if we just avoided gluten altogether?

This hits particularly close to home because I head up a blog about my hopeful attempts to cook healthy food for our kids. I'm a mom to three small children, but not a chef, much less a nutritionist. That's why I asked a bunch of real experts and here's what I came up with.

If you suspect that your children have trouble digesting gluten, have them tested or go entirely off gluten for three weeks. If you notice a change for the better, stay off it. Otherwise, there is no health benefit to avoiding gluten. Like Albert Brooks (aka Larry) says in the film, "At my house, we're wheat eaters."

But you don't have to rely on Hollywood here. Dennett goes on to explain in more detail: "If a child is not suffering from gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity, then there is no health benefit. A gluten-free diet isn't necessarily a healthier diet for people who don't need to avoid gluten. It's important to consider what you are eating as well as what you aren't eating. There are lots of naturally gluten-free foods that are healthy, such as fruits and vegetables, beans, fish, nuts, eggs, yogurt, poultry, lean meat and gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice. There are also highly processed gluten-free foods that may contain lots of sugar, fat and other less-healthful ingredients."

Right. It's so simple that I can't believe I haven't thought of this before. And this logic reminds me of the classic advice from Michael Pollan. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

But the truth is, some people are intolerant. So, how do you know if your kids should go off gluten? Experts say there are warning signs. "Some are GI-related (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, bloated stomach), while others are a result of not absorbing nutrients properly because of the physical effect of gluten on your intestinal tract (failure-to-thrive, weight loss, short height, iron-deficiency anemia, tiredness and irritability)," explains Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist consultant in New York. "Also, if family members have autoimmune disease, your children should be tested."

It's one thing to read a list like this, but I also talked to moms. A dear friend of mine and mother of four described her previously undiagnosed daughter as "sick all the time from the day she was born." Before she went off gluten (and dairy), her ailments included:
  • chronic ear and sinus infections
  • poor growth (she was labeled "failure to thrive" at 12 months)
  • dark circles under her eyes
  • terrible night terrors
  • poor balance (she would fall over from just standing in one spot)
  • overall lethargy (cranky, CLINGY, irritable, and would melt down at the drop of a hat)
  • bruised easily and took forever to go away
  • as an infant she always groaned like her tummy hurt
  • SHE CRIED ALL THE TIME. I MEAN, ALL THE TIME.
This is why. This is why we keep hearing about gluten. Because this sounds awful. And the truth is, that list describes my kids about half the time. At least at a glance. Cranky? Check. Bruising? Sometimes. Crying? Um, yes.

There is some evidence that wheat causes inflammation in most people, if not everyone. But honestly, we don't have any food sensitivity in my family history, nor my husband's and no reason to suspect that inflammation is an issue for us. I'll keep an eye on our middle child because she comes the closest to this list, but she's also two years old and cranky tears are definitely part of this stage. But otherwise, I'm freeing up that space for something else.

Like most families, our priorities are a hodgepodge of things that make sense to us. A mix-and-match scramble that sometimes contradicts, but usually weaves a quilt that we're happy with. For us, that means sticking with a mostly whole food diet and doing our best to make family meals a priority, but that doesn't mean we've never seen the inside of a McDonald's. Do I worry about the kids being healthy? Yes. But for now I'll focus on more spinach, less sugar and the fewer processed foods the better.

Gluten, let's just leave it like this for now. You're OK with me.