When children experience respiratory, digestive, behavioral, or other health challenges, many parents naturally seek out dietary solutions. Unfortunately, the prevailing confusion in this area provides fertile ground for misconceptions and counterproductive dietary fads. Among contemporary trends, avoiding gluten and/or dairy products are two of the most popular. Does taking your children off gluten or dairy really help? Do such recommendations rest upon fallacy or fact? As it turns out, though born of legitimate concerns, the impulse to discontinue gluten or dairy products is generally misguided, and may distract parents from truly important steps that can help kids to eat right, grow, and thrive.
For most children, gluten is ok
Gluten is a protein found in many (but not all) grains, including wheat, barley, and rye. Children who have a condition called celiac disease must for sure avoid gluten, but for most other kids, eating gluten is perfectly fine.
With celiac disease, consumption of gluten causes an inflammatory reaction of the lining of the small intestine. This leads to poor absorption of nutrients, abdominal discomfort, and other symptoms. The incidence of celiac disease has increased dramatically and is thought to be in the range of 1%. Physicians can often diagnose celiac disease using a simple blood test, and symptoms respond well to a gluten-free diet. Children who have celiac disease must avoid eating gluten.
However, the great majority of kids do not have celiac disease, and for them eating gluten is fine. The mistake most commonly goes like this. Children have a natural tendency toward respiratory problems, and eventually a parent dutifully and accurately notices that the asthma, allergy or sinus flares worsen considerably when the child consumes breads, pastries, pizzas, muffins, and the like. The parent decides to go “gluten free,” all these foods are reduced or stopped, and the child dramatically improves. The parent now restricts the child from all wheat and other gluten containing grain products, while depleting the college savings to fund the purchase of expensive, processed gluten free specialty food items. Is this the right thing to do?
Not quite. The parent here has fallen into a classic trap. Whole grains provide healthy fiber and nutrients for children, but parents must know how to use them. First and most importantly, toast all breads. In addition, children will tolerateflat breads, like pitta breads or tortillas, much better than puffy breads, which should be reduced or avoided. This also means children should avoid eating things like muffins or cakes. These too will cause congestion and other health problems, not because of the gluten, but rather due to their moist, mucus producing qualities. The very best approach: cook a whole grain like rice, barley, quinoa etc. as is, then serve alongside some protein and cooked vegetables for a delicious hot nutritious well-rounded meal.
Properly used, dairy products are healthy
Parents commonly notice that when the kids drink cold milk or eat some ice cream, they get a stuffy nose or upset stomach. Does this mean we need to take our children off dairy products?
Usually not. Dairy products are either really good for your children, or really bad, depending upon whether or not you follow a few guidelines. In the case of cows’ or goats’ milk, remember two rules of thumb. First, milk must be boiled, and consumed warm. Boiling the milk takes it to a higher temperature than routine pasteurization, breaking down the protein molecules and making it easier to digest. Secondly, combine milk with sweet tasting foods only. Do not combine milk with sour, salty, bitter, or pungent foods. We’ll consider grains to be sweet. You can serve warm milk to your children combined with breakfast style foods, like toast or cereal, but you wouldn’t combine milk with lunch or dinner style foods, like a stir fry, or lasagna. Sticking to these guidelines will allow your children to enjoy and benefit from this important nutritional source while avoiding respiratory or digestive problems.
Other dairy products can likewise be good or bad, depending upon how you serve them. Clearly, though, cold dairy products are off the menu. No ice cream, no cold yogurt. Any cold dairy product will severely aggravate the respiratory problems to which children are notoriously susceptible. You can make a delicious yogurt drink called lassi and serve it to the children room temperature after lunch for a nutritious dessert that provides important probiotic support. Avoid aged cheeses, but fresh cheeses, like cottage cheese are ok. Serve cheeses at mid-day when digestion is strongest, and remember that for cheese, lassi, and most other foods, room temperature is ok, but nothing cold.
Follow these guidelines and most children will tolerate dairy products very well.
How inappropriate gluten and dairy restrictions could harm your child
Whole grains and dairy products provide children with important nutritional support, and, if served correctly, your children will tolerate and enjoy them. These major food groups constitute important components of a healthy balanced diet. When eliminated, something must substitute for them. Too often that “something” is processed foods, unwholesome foods, or some imbalanced diet plan. The elimination of grains and/or dairy can lead to an over-reliance on meat. This habit carried into adulthood will increase risk of heart disease, stroke, and many types of cancer. Dietary restrictions render it difficult for children to attend and enjoy social events, causing unnecessary isolation. Food phobias generate additional expenses for the parents owing to the purchase of processed specialty products. We should teach our children what is healthy or not in an accurate way, and avoid cultivating a fearful or negative attitude toward wholesome foods.
Three important things to know about how to feed your children
You can optimize your children’s health now, and set the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating and living, by cultivating these 3 dietary habits:
– Our digestion is naturally strongest at mid-day when the sun is highest in the sky. Make sure your child eats a well-balanced nutritious lunch every day.
-Include lots of fresh fruit and cooked vegetables in the diet.
-Avoid soft drinks, processed foods, and junk foods. Sugar sweetened beverages must be avoided altogether. Moms all know that too much candy, soft drinks, and sweets have a very unsettling influence.
Following these simple rules will place your kids on track for a natural, healthy, and sustainable dietary program.
CHARLES ELDER MD MPH FACP received his MD and MPH degrees from Boston University School of Medicine, and completed residency training in internal medicine at the University of Michigan hospitals. He has served as a primary care internist at Kaiser Permanente Northwest (KPNW) for 28 years, and has been the physician lead for the complementary and integrative medicine program at KPNW for 20 years. He also has clinical faculty appointments at Oregon Health and Science University and Maharishi International University, and for over 2 decades has mentored and taught residents and students in both internal and integrative medicine settings. His most recent book, Picture of Health: Transform Your Self-Care and Health Care Through Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicineis now available.