What is the Deal with Gluten?


Are you wondering what to make of all the warnings against gluten? Here we explain what gluten is and where it's found in order to help you make a better educated decision when it comes to your child's diet.


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With the help of Oprah and a few other celebrities, the idea of a gluten-free diet seems to have taken on a life of its own. While eliminating gluten in a child’s diet may appear to be a miracle decision, it is important that we examine the science behind why and how gluten, and milk protein (casein), affect the body. Aside from the known medical issues for people with Celiac Disease who eat gluten, eliminating gluten may prove beneficial in some children, and yet result in little change in others. As with most things, some children are just more sensitive than others to gluten.

What is Gluten?

Precisely, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Interestingly, oat does not contain gluten, although, if mixed with wheat, barley, and/or rye, it can pick up the gluten from those other grains. Gluten is what makes bread spongy and pizza dough stretchy. It is used to thicken sauces, soups and gravies.

Gluten is also an additive in many products, not just food.

How does Gluten Affect the Body?

During normal digestion, the body breaks this protein down into amino acids which are then used by the body for energy. Whatever cannot be used by the body, or whatever is leftover, is flushed out of the body through stool and urine.

In some children, the small hair-like structures of the small intestine (villi) have become damaged by the buildup of peptides (small chains of amino acids as a result of incomplete digestion, compromising the integrity of the intestinal wall.) Some of these amino acids, instead of being excreted through normal body processes, enter the bloodstream where the body’s immune system attacks them. Unfortunately, the body’s immune system doesn’t distinguish between these leaked amino acids and the ones our bodies need. This is what happens in Celiac Disease.

With the damage to the small intestine, important nutrients are not absorbed from food, and can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including osteoporosis from not absorbing enough calcium and vitamin D.

In addition to this, scientist believe that certain grain proteins can act as an opioid – which can increase the level of endorphins, which the body normally produces in response to stress or pain. This may explain why bread is considered a comfort food and why many people are keenly afraid of giving it up.

Some researchers believe that children with epilepsy, Down’s syndrome, and autism may benefit from a gluten-free (and casein-free) or gluten-limited diet. Since we know that the intestinal wall in some children can let incompletely digested, opioid-like proteins into the bloodstream, there is actually contact of these amino acids with the brain, affecting the connections and communication between neurons. This may explain lower sensitivity to pain, clingy-type behavior, unpredictable responses, reduced socialization, and repetitive behavior often observed in autistic children. These characteristics were observed in laboratory animals when injected with opiates. Gluten was also linked to lower pain sensitivity, changes in emotions and negative effects on memory, and affecting the peripheral and central nervous system. Research continues into these apparent relationships.

Gluten Intolerance and Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms in Children

In the last 10 years or so, more and more people are becoming aware of gluten and deciding, perhaps unnecessarily, to take out of their diets even though they do not have Celiac disease or evidence of gluten sensitivity.

Celiac Disease is difficult to diagnose and can often be confused with irritable bowel syndrome. Many medical professionals are beginning to realize that there is a non-celiac gluten intolerance appearing in a growing number of people. One way to test for a gluten sensitivity is to reduce or eliminate it from a child’s diet and just observe for any changes in behavior or overall how they feel. Because your infant or toddler may not be able to express what their body is feeling, it’s up to you to watch for:

  • Acid Reflux
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  • Chronically spitting up
  • Failure to thrive (short stature)
  • Sore bottom
  • Recurrent ear infections
  • Cold/flu-like symptoms
  • Rectal prolapse (tissue lining the rectum falls into or sticks through the anal opening)
  • Bed wetting (in toddlers)
  • Nutritional deficiencies (in toddlers)
  • Diarrhea/constipation (in toddlers)

Children with gluten sensitivities often display learning disability-type behaviors and habits upon entering school. See a list at the bottom of this article, along with the results of a very small study of changes in cognitive abilities following a gluten-free diet.

If you suspect you (if you’re nursing) or your child may have a gluten sensitivity, it is important to speak with your doctor and learn all you can. Going completely gluten-free is not easy because gluten is in so many food products. Becoming a discerning grocery buyer and perhaps simply reducing the overall use of gluten-containing products in your diet can also have a positive effect.

When shopping for gluten-free foods, beware of high sugar and fat content. Since gluten is known to add flavor and texture to foods, manufacturers have to add something else to their product to make it taste good, and have a pleasing texture. Fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, rice, corn, and gluten-free oats, amaranth and quinoa are common dietary options to make sure you’re not replacing gluten intake with sugar and fat intake.

Darlene Oakley is a freelance writer for


Developmental Disorders and Dairy Products, Grains, Gluten and Other Proteins. Lahey, Margaret. Rosen, Shari. Children’s Disabilities Information. Web. July 19, 2012.

Is Gluten Bad for You? Ansel, Karen. Women’s Health. Web. July 19, 2012.

What is Celiac Disease? American Celiac Disease Alliance. Web. July 19, 2012.

Gluten Intolerance: Sensitivity or Celiac Disease? Salahi, Lara. ABC News. Web. July 19, 2012.

The Celiac Disease of Mental Illness. Kaslow, Jeremy. Web. July 19, 2012.

Gluten Sensitivities. Cook, Tanda. Web. July 19, 2012.


Related Links:

The Details on ‘Gluten-Free’ Labeling. Ross, Deborah.

Could You Be Gluten Sensitive? Jones, Dr. Carrie.

Gluten Intolerance, Anxiety and Panic Attacks. Smith, Jody.


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