Why Gluten-Free Diets Might Turn Kids Into Jerks
Why Gluten-Free Diets Might Turn Kids Into Jerks
“That’s bad for you. It will make you sick,” a three-year-old boy tells my daughter as she bites into a Stoned Wheat Thin cracker provided by the playgroup staff. “It has gluten.” He smiles smugly through a mouthful of cheese, while his mother looks on approvingly. My daughter shrugs and happily crunches away.
“Are you celiac?” I inquire.
“Is that a Transformer?” he asks.
Later, between snack and circle time, Gluten-Free Mom tells me her family swore off wheat after she read Wheat Belly, the bestselling bible for those desperate to beat the bulge. No one in the family is celiac or otherwise sensitive to wheat, she says, but they are carrying some extra pounds.
Here on the West Coast, the gluten-free craze is transforming the diets of not only adults, but children too. My daughter’s preschool went gluten-free after Christmas in support of the choice of one family. A birthday party invitation promised a gluten-free cake for the “healthy little ones.” And gluten-free Goldfish Puffs (and other packaged foods sans wheat) are popping up everywhere.
According to a survey by Udi’s (a gluten-free food giant), about 12 per cent of Canadians are eliminating or reducing gluten in their diets. In B.C., that number is 17 per cent with an additional 10 per cent having recently tried the regime. Of those who have made the switch nationally, only 21 per cent report a gluten intolerance.
Torn between opening a gluten-free cupcake shop and calling bluff on the whole trend, I picked up a copy of Wheat Belly and did some research. Here are five reasons you should let young ones occasionally eat cupcakes in all their gluten-ous glory.
It’s Just a Trend
Dietitian and child feeding expert Kristen Yarker from Vitamin K Nutrition Consulting has seen a crock pot of contradicting trends in her career, from low-fat to Atkins. “I’ve seen many different foods and nutrients be given almost supernatural powers, and I see wheat as being the latest in that long list,” she says. “I’m sure it will die down and there will be others in the future. I’m not afraid of wheat.” But if you teach your kids that bread is bad, how will you get them to eat sandwiches when the trend passes?
Wheat is Not the Enemy
Wheat Belly author and cardiologist William Davis blames wheat for a variety of health ailments, from diabetes to dementia, largely based on anecdotal evidence. Meanwhile, an article by two Vancouver physicians in B.C. Medical Journal notes that while “wheat, and gluten in particular, has been given pariah status by the millions who are on the low-carb diet bandwagon … most of the evidence against wheat or gluten is unsubstantiated by science.” The article says there is no need to avoid gluten unless you have celiac or an allergy. Without conclusive evidence that wheat is bad, why complicate meal planning? “Grains are important for kids’ diets and wheat is one of the most common grains that we eat,” notes Yarker.
Gluten-Free Doesn’t Equal Healthy
I admit it. I’ve served my preschooler gluten-free mac and cheese by Annie’s Homegrown as a treat and felt like I was making a healthy choice. Turns out, it’s still a box of highly refined noodles and powdered cheese. Apparently I’m not alone; Annie’s says it’s one of its most popular products. “It doesn’t make it a health food all of a sudden because it’s gluten free,” says Yarker. “It’s very easy for exhausted parents to see these labels and think, ‘Oh, that must be healthy’ and grab it. It’s not necessarily a healthier option. It’s a trap.”
You May be Missing Nutrients
A November 2013 article in the journal Nutrients says gluten-free products are considered of lower quality and poorer nutritional value compared to the gluten-containing counterparts. The article, titledGluten-Free Diet in Children: An Approach to a Nutritionally Adequate and Balanced Diet, says going gluten free “may lead to nutritional imbalances, which should be avoided, particularly at the pediatric age, the phase of maximal growth and development.”
You’re Fueling an Opportunist Industry
Gluten. Sounds like glutton. Perhaps if the vilified protein were called something like “thinsulin,” its fate would be different. Alas, “gluten free” is stamped on a variety of food products in an effort to attract consumers. Even foods that have always been naturally gluten free are now carrying the label (think tortilla chips and salsa). And it’s working. The Udi’s survey reports 20 per cent of Canadians have tried a gluten-free product. A Dalhousie University study found that gluten-free foods were on average 242 per cent more expensive than their regular counterparts. Think of all the skating lessons that could pay for.
You May Turn Kids into Jerks
While my three-year-old wasn’t fazed by the boy who cracker-shamed her, I was simultaneously entertained and irritated. Kids don’t necessarily have the same filter as adults and listening to them regurgitate their parents’ anti-pasta drivel is more annoying than endearing. “Food does more than just fuel our bodies; it’s also an expression of love, an expression of our culture,” Yarker says. “You might be coming from the best of intentions, but when you’re talking about someone’s food choices you’re speaking to something very close to their heart.”
Raina Delisle is a West Coast lifestyle writer. With three girls in her family -- baby Elodie, preschooler Ocea and teenage step-daughter Maya -- she has plenty to say about family wellness. Follow her on Twitter @rainashine.