Food for Thought on Gluten Intolerance & Celiac Disease

Recently some parents have been asking me a mouthful of questions about celiac disease, which means their child is unable to tolerate gluten in the diet.  Well let me see if I can help them – and you – digest some information on gluten and this disorder.

Gluten is the term used for a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye and barley and, after sugar, is the second-most consumed ingredient in our diet.  If a child develops an allergic reaction to gluten (for reasons that we still don’t understand), that reaction damages the small intestine and makes it difficult for the body to absorb not just gluten, but other vitamins and minerals needed to stay healthy. 

 This can result in malnutrition, anemia, and even an increased association with other diseases like thyroid disease and diabetes.  This inability of the body to absorb nutrients due to gluten is called celiac disease.

Celiac disease can run in families and affects people of all heritages, although is most common among people of northern European descent.  It is estimated that 1 in about 130 people have some form of celiac disease, but the difficulty in absorbing nutrients can be so mild that many of us never know that we have it.

Common symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloating, weight loss and fatigue – which might also occur with other digestive disorders.  If you are worried about your child possibly having celiac disease, talk to your child’s doctor, who can do a blood test and if necessary refer your child to a pediatric digestive specialist who can do further tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment involves a diet free of gluten for the rest of your child’s life, thus it is very important to be sure that celiac disease is really the cause for your child’s abdominal symptoms or poor growth.  If celiac disease is diagnosed, your child’s doctor or a dietician can help you adjust the diet appropriately. 

Pay careful attention to food labels to make sure they do not contain gluten.  Foods made with corn flour, rice, meat, fish, chicken, dairy products, fruits and vegetables do not contain gluten, so don’t despair that your child will starve.  They now even make gluten free bread!

Hopefully tips like this will seal the deal when it comes to knowing more about gluten and celiac disease.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at