Recent statistics have shown that gluten intolerance and celiac disease are very widespread conditions however many of those affected walk around without even realising it: some children don’t always show all the tell-tale symptoms, making it tricky to diagnose. It’s no wonder we hear stories about parents who go through the run-around, over prolonged periods, trying to get to the bottom of their child’s ailments!
We hear a lot about households going gluten-free or wheat-free, but when is it really necessary and what should you know about it?
It all starts with understanding what you are dealing with and how to get to the bottom of it:
Celiac disease is a type of gluten intolerance and a hereditary disease affecting around 1 in 100 people. It is an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body will actually attack gluten (a protein found in what, rye, barley to name a few) in the intestine, causing inflammation and impacting nutrient absorption. As a result, damage is done to the walls of the small intestine, and in serious cases it may result in malnourishment and could even be fatal if left untreated.
Wheat allergy is an immune reaction to one of the many proteins found in wheat, whereby the body’s immune system will attack wheat and cause an allergic reaction. It is an extremely common allergy which children tend to outgrow (along with other allergies by the age of 5).
Non-celiac gluten intolerance is not an immune response nor is it an allergic reaction but is a blanket term to describe other adverse reactions to gluten in the body. It has become more common over the years due to a higher number of different foods including gluten, an increased gluten content in modern-day grains and overuse of antibiotics, which lead to poor gut absorption of gluten.
How to diagnose your child?
While celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance have very similar symptoms – cramping, diarrhea and constipation, joint pain, headaches, and fatigue – symptoms of a wheat allergy are very distinct: itching, hives, trouble breathing or anaphylaxis.
While celiac disease and wheat allergy can be ruled out with blood screening and skin-prick tests respectively, non-celiac gluten intolerance can only be diagnosed by ruling out other allergies, and then eliminating gluten from the diet. If you feel as though you simply aren’t getting to the bottom of the problem after undergoing some of the key diagnostic tests mentioned, keep a food diary and track how your child reacts to certain foods in order to identify the culprit in the diet.
If you suspect that your child may be intolerant to gluten to wheat, make an appointment with your health care practitioner immediately to get the right diagnosis and guidance.
Note: Gluten-free living has been recommended by experts for children with neurological disorders like Autism, Cerebral Palsy and ADHD as part of their therapy treatment program, and to assist with ailments such as chronic diarrhea and stomach cramps (amongst others).
Living without gluten or wheat
After finally having gotten to the bottom of what is causing your child’s ailments, it’s time to tackle how to go about your living your lives and it all seems a little over-whelming.
You need to remember that it is up to you to make this transition as seamless as possible for your little person, and it starts with choosing an approach that best suits your household. At the end of the day, you need to do what is right your family: some families prefer to buy gluten or wheat-free products only for the affected child, while others prefer to banish all offending foods from the household entirely.
There is no right or wrong way (unless you have received strict instructions from your health care practitioner), and factors like the severity of your child’s allergy or intolerance, along with their age (and ability to understand) and other family diet restrictions will ultimately guide your decision.
It is important to become aware of foods containing wheat or gluten, and to always double-check ingredients on food labels (sometimes gluten and wheat can be found in unexpected foods and even foods claiming to be gluten or wheat-free). While gluten is found in the obvious culprits – like bread, pasta, some oats, crackers, cereals, biscuits, cakes, cous-cous, spelt, barley – it can also be found in the less obvious foods like lunch meat, marinades, soya sauce, sweets and even in some personal care products like lip balm.
There are so many gluten and wheat-free food options available in health stores, regular grocery stores and in many restaurants that – more than ever – we are spoilt for choice. Almond, chickpea, rice and coconut flour are amongst other excellent alternatives to conventional flour and can be used in most cooking and baking recipes.
Without gluten and wheat-containing foods, you will need to ensure that your child is getting in enough fibre, iron and B vitamins through a healthy, balanced diet of fruit, meat, eggs, dairy, leafy greens and alternate grain sources like rice and corn.
Get organised, get creative and get clued-up and soon gluten or wheat-free living will be a natural part of your child’s lifestyle!
To find out more information about celiac disease, non-celiac gluten intolerance or wheat allergy, read further here.
*The above should never replace the advice of your paed, GP or nurse.