Gluten-Free Diets May Be Risky for Kids

(Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Putting kids on gluten-free diets even if they don't have celiac disease or a wheat allergy may carry more risks than benefits, experts warned.

In recent years, gluten-free diets have become increasingly popular. A 2015 survey found that 25 percent of Americans said they consume some gluten-free foods, up from just 8 percent in 2013, according to the market research company Mintel Group.

However, celiac disease (CD), the immune condition that makes people sick if they eat gluten, is very rare. Less than 1 percent of people in the United States have celiac disease.

Some people who start a gluten-free diet may have misconceptions about gluten, or not be aware that the diet can come with risks, according to a new commentary paper in The Journal of Pediatrics.

"Out of concern for their children's health, parents sometimes place their children on a gluten-free diet in the belief that it relieves symptoms, can prevent CD or is a healthy alternative, without prior testing for CD or consultation with a dietitian," said Dr. Norelle R. Reilly, author of the commentary and a pediatric gastroenterologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. [9 Snack Foods: Healthy or Not?]

But the perception that a gluten-free diet is healthy in and of itself is a myth. There's no scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet brings health benefits to people who don't have celiac disease, wheat allergy or nonceliac gluten sensitivity, the commentary said. (Nonceliac gluten sensitivity may affect up to 6 percent of people and involves gastrointestinal symptoms that are specifically induced by gluten.)

What's more, a gluten-free diet can come with risks, particularly if people follow the diet without speaking with a doctor or dietitian first, Reilly said.

Gluten-free packaged foods are often higher in fat and sugar than are products that contain gluten, and studies have found that some people become obese or overweight after starting a gluten-free diet, the commentary said.

In addition, many gluten-free foods are not fortified with vitamins and minerals, and so following a gluten-free diet may lead to nutritional deficiencies, Reilly said.

Some people may think that a gluten-free diet can prevent celiac disease in children, but studies haven't found a link between when children start eating gluten and their risk of celiac disease. "There is no evidence to support a [gluten-free diet] for asymptomatic children without CD, or for delaying gluten introduction to infants to prevent CD," the commentary said.

Gluten-free products also tend to be more expensive than products that contain gluten, and people who must follow a gluten-free diet sometimes report feeling socially isolated because of their diet, the commentary said.

"Parents should be counseled as to the possible financial, social and nutritional consequences of unnecessary implementation of a gluten-free diet" in children, Reilly said.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.