Having a child diagnosed with celiac disease (CD) will send a parent down the gluten-free aisle and in search of a specialized dietitian to help eliminate gut-damaging gluten from their child’s diet. But for children who don’t have a medical necessity to cut gluten from their diet, a commentary published in the Journal of Pediatrics reveals the possible unintentional consequences of self-prescribing a child to go on a gluten-free diet without a doctor or dietitian’s advice.

“The gluten-free diet is a critical medical treatment for the millions of individuals worldwide with celiac disease,” wrote the report’s author Dr. Norelle R. Reilly, director of Pediatric Celiac Disease at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. “According to market research, consumers without CD purchase the vast bulk of gluten-free products. There is arguably no role for a [gluten-free diet] for children outside of treatment of CD and wheat allergy.”

The gluten-free industry is exploding, with 136 percent growth between 2013 and 2015 alone. But according to a Gallup survey conducted in 2015, “no reason” was the most common answer Americans gave for why they were buying gluten-free products. Reilly worries about what it could mean for children who have been cut off from gluten because of their parents’ misconstrued fear.

Gluten, she says, is overhyped as a dangerous and toxic component in food, and many naively believe by cutting it out, they’re feeding their kids a healthier diet that has the potential to prevent CD. But, according to Reilly, gluten-free packaged foods frequently contain more fat and sugar per serving compared to their gluten-containing competitors.

"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,” Reilly said.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that is regularly consumed by the general public with no negative side effects. But for every one in 100 people diagnosed with CD throughout the world, gluten becomes a toxic substance in the body, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Their immune system attacks the small intestine, damaging the villi, which are responsible for absorbing nutrients from the food being digested.

According to Reilly, one of the widely misconceived notions about the gluten-free diet is that it’s a healthy lifestyle choice bereft of drawbacks. When in reality, experts don’t know enough about how gluten affects the body’s metabolism and digestion to know if it does or doesn’t increase fat, calorie intake, or contribute to nutritional deficiencies. The Children’s Digestive Health and Nutrition Foundation agrees: Just because the food product is gluten-free doesn’t mean that it is a healthy alternative to foods that contain gluten, it says.

“Parents should be counseled as to the possible financial, social, and nutritional consequences of unnecessary implementation of a gluten-free diet." Reilly concluded. “Health care providers may not be able to end the [gluten-free diet] fad, but can certainly begin to play a larger role in educating parents and preventing nutritional deficiencies in those choosing to stay-gluten free.”

Source: Reilly NR. The Gluten-free Diet: Recognizing Fact, Fiction, and Fad. Journal of Pediatrics. 2016.