When it comes to food trends, “gluten-free” (GF) is at the top of the heap. Some people claim that the meal plan has helped them lose weight, have more energy, and just feel better. But is it better fuel for your kids?
Unless your child has a specific medical reason to avoid gluten, there’s little proof that a GF meal plan is better than the healthy, balanced foods that all kids need. Before you start planning GF meals, it’s important to understand the basics of this approach to eating.
What It Means to Go Gluten-Free
Gluten is a protein found in some grains. If your child goes on a GF diet, they’ll avoid all food and drinks that have:
- Triticale (a cross between wheat and barley)
Instead, they’ll focus on foods that are naturally gluten-free. These include fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, and most dairy products.
Some grains and starches are OK on a gluten-free diet, like:
- Corn and cornmeal
Special GF flours are also made from many of these grains.
Is a Gluten-Free Diet a Healthy Choice for Kids?
The only people who need to stick to a gluten-free diet are those with celiac disease, a condition in which gluten can damage the small intestine. Kids who are allergic to gluten, like those who have a wheat allergy, should avoid it, too.
For everyone else, gluten is not unhealthy. Avoiding it won’t make your kids “feel better” or have more energy. In fact, trying to cut it out of your child’s diet may make it harder for them to get enough key nutrients, like iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B, and folate. Plus, since so many grains are off-limits, a GF diet can mean they’ll have a tough time getting enough fiber.
It’s still the overall quality of the foods your child eats that makes the biggest difference in how they feel. Focus on helping them choose a variety of whole, healthy foods and cutting out processed ones. (Packages of gluten-free cookies or potato chips aren’t any healthier than the regular kinds.)
Meals and snacks should have plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein. Sugary, fried, or salty treats are OK every once in a while, but not every day. That balance is what kids need to have energy for school, feel motivated to play and exercise, and sleep well.
If your child does have a medical reason to cut out gluten, talk with their doctor or a dietitian to make sure they get the right balance of foods and nutrients. “As long as the focus is on naturally GF food like vegetables, high-quality protein, healthy fats (like nuts, seeds, and avocado), fruit, and whole grains, your child’s diet will be in good shape,” says Robin Foroutan, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.