If your child has celiac disease, feeding your child a healthy diet is a whole new challenge.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where eating gluten in wheat, barley, rye and other products damages the villi, which are finger-like projections in your child’s small intestines. The villi can’t work as well, which means your child can’t absorb important nutrients and may have diarrhea, bloating, pain and other symptoms.
“In these patients, you must completely eliminate gluten from the diet,” said Dr. Rami Arrouk, a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia. “When they do that, their small intestine goes back to a normal state.”
Especially for kids with celiac, sticking to that gluten-free diet means your child’s body can work as it should to absorb enough nutrients to grow to their full potential and stay healthy, says Arrouk.
How Do I Make Sure My Child Is Eating Healthy?
However, when you think about it, taking bread and pasta out of the diet removes important macronutrients like carbs, fat and protein, as well as micronutrients, like key vitamins and minerals.
It can feel overwhelming to try to tackle this new diet on your own, so start by talking to a pediatric dietitian, says Arrouk. “Dietitians are very helpful in making sure that a child is eating enough macro- and micronutrients to substitute the amount they’re losing by eliminating gluten from the diet,” he said.
Then, start by thinking of what your child can eat—not what they can’t. Your shopping list probably already has many gluten-free foods on it, such as: fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, beans, juices, dairy, corn chips or popcorn, jello and pudding, rice and rice cereal, grits, corn tortillas, peanut butter, jelly and more.
For example, your child’s breakfast could feature puffed rice cereal with milk and fresh fruit or an egg, cheese and veggie omelet with fried potatoes and fruit. Lunch or dinner could be a salad loaded with chicken or tuna, with chopped vegetables or fruit; baked potatoes stuffed with cheese, meat and vegetables; meat or veggie quesadillas made with corn tortillas; chili; or roast beef with a cornstarch gravy on rice with vegetables. Snacks could be rice cakes with peanut butter, corn chip nachos, apple and string cheese, or yogurt with berries.
Grocery stores also now offer a huge variety of gluten-free breads, pastas, pizzas and more. “There’s no shortage of good-tasting, nutritious gluten-free options in the supermarket today,” said Arrouk.
Still, it can be tricky to avoid all gluten. For example, did you know that these products contain gluten?
- Some broths and soup bases
- Lunch meat
- Any sauce thickened with flour
- Self-basting turkeys
- Imitation bacon or seafood
- Soy sauce
- Some medicines and vitamins
- Some lipstick, gloss and balm
- Playdoh (your child could ingest gluten if they don’t wash hands after playing with Playdoh)
“Always look at food labels,” said Arrouk. “It’s important for all of us to know the health information and nutrients in the food we eat and what ingredients we’re putting inside our bodies. It’s even more important for the patient with celiac disease to make sure every food they eat says it’s gluten-free.”
It’s likely that not everyone in your family is going to follow a gluten-free diet. So also take a few extra steps to make sure you’re not mixing gluten into gluten-free items. For example:
- Use separate jars of jelly, peanut butter or mayo to avoid shared bread crumbs.
- Use a separate toaster for gluten-free bread.
- Clean surfaces carefully to remove bread or other gluten-containing crumbs, and always clean utensils and pans before cooking gluten-free products.
At School and Out in the World
If kids with celiac eat gluten at school or when they’re out with friends, they may feel bad right away or they may not. “But it’s important that children know they are affecting their short-term and long-term health by cheating,” said Arrouk, since untreated celiac disease can stunt a child’s growth and lead to conditions like type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, anemia, osteoporosis, infertility, epilepsy and migraines, heart disease, intestinal problems including cancer, and more.
If you have celiac disease, any amount of gluten is going to cause a reaction in your small intestine. So early on, focus on “education, education, education,” said Arrouk. “Parents should involve children from a younger age to know more about their condition. I encourage families to read through age-appropriate materials to make sure children understand all the restrictions that apply to their diet. After a while, families frequently tell me that it’s their child who’s telling them that, ‘Hey, by the way, I can’t eat this.’ Education is always important.”