Gluten has gotten such a bad rap in the last several years that some parents are putting their children on a gluten-free diet, even though the children don’t have celiac disease. (Celiac, which affects about one percent of the population, is an autoimmune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.) Those parents assume that gluten-free eating is healthier. But a new report in the Journal of Pediatrics says exactly the opposite: A gluten-free diet can actually be harmful to children who do not suffer from celiac disease or wheat allergy.
Obviously there are a plethora of extremely healthful, naturally gluten-free foods—like fruits and vegetables. Those are not the problem. The problem is gluten-free versions of foods like bread or other baked goods, which market themselves as healthier options. In fact, those substitutes are often less healthful and more processed than regular bread—the gluten-free varieties may have more calories, fewer nutrients, and much less fiber, leading to nutritional deficiencies.
“One misconception is that the gluten-free diet is a healthy lifestyle choice with no disadvantages,” writes Dr. Norelle R. Reilly, the author of the report, who is an assistant professor of pediatric medicine and celiac disease specialist at Columbia University. “In fact, in individuals without CD [celiac disease] or wheat allergy, there are no proven health benefits. It could increase fat and calorie intake, contribute to nutritional deficiencies, and obscure an actual diagnosis of CD. Another misconception is that gluten is toxic; there are no data to support this theory.”
In other words, because gluten is not toxic, but simply a protein contained in some grains, there’s no need for anyone, but especially children, to avoid it if they do not have celiac disease or wheat allergy. A balanced diet, including whole grains, is particularly important to children’s brain development as they grow. There are also more intangible consequences: Restricting a child’s diet can make them feel that food is something to be feared, and make it difficult for them to fully engage in social occasions like birthday parties.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Dr. Reilly, whose life’s work is treating celiac disease, blames the gluten-free processed food industry for taking gluten-free eating out of a medical context and into the realm of dieting, where it does more harm than good.