They might be active and eat their vegetables, but could your children still suffer from long-term health problems because they consume a diet that contains a high amount of wheat?

recent study at the University of Maryland reveals that the prevalence of people suffering from gluten-intolerance and celiac disease has significantly increased over the past 30 years.

Researchers found that more people are losing their tolerance to gluten, the gluey protein found in wheat, barley and rye, as they grow older.

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Thai cooks in Bangkok stir a vegetarian stew containing 400 kilograms of wheat gluten to mark the beginning of the annual vegetarian festival in October, when Chinese people around the world refrain from eating animal products for 10 days. (Reuters)

This has reignited the debate over gluten-free diets since the study undermines the common assumption that celiac disease, in which the body can't process gluten, is a genetic disorder discovered during childhood.

Gluten is now recognized as the cause of many common health problems in some children, including gastrointestinal complications such as bloating, diarrhea and constipation; and behavioural issues such as irritability and fatigue.

People with celiac disease face more serious long-term health repercussions because their bodies are unable to absorb nutrients like protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, "which are necessary for good health," the Canadian Celiac Association says.

But all the scare stories about gluten have provoked some parents into taking matters into their own hands and imposing gluten-restricted diets on their own children, a practice that doctors and nutritionists are decidedly divided over. 

Trial and error

Tony Sabherwal owns an organic pizza franchise in Toronto but makes no claims to being a nutritional expert. Still, he has become aware of the growing concerns about healthy diets for children and when his second child was born just over 10 years ago he decided to do something about it.

Once he began examining the ingredients in the meals he was preparing for his children, he inadvertently began removing a large amount of gluten from his family's diet, by replacing white and whole wheat flour with healthier alternatives such as buckwheat and quinoa.

"My children are kind of food snobs," Sabherwal jokes, by which he means that after years of teaching them to recognize what the right choices are for their bodies, they have come to enthusiastically embrace their gluten-restricted diet.

His children's refusal to eat unhealthy foods runs against the trend of rising obesity rates among young people. But in giving up gluten they are also joining another growing group, which includes the nearly one per cent of Canadians who are thought to be gluten intolerant.

However, many health-care professionals such as Dr. Peggy Marcon, a gastroenterologist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, strongly caution parents against the Sabherwals' trial-and-error approach, especially if it calls for the complete removal of gluten.

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Amy Fehr, a baker and product coordinator at a Vancouver bakery and cafe, displays an assortment of gluten-free muffins and cupcakes for celiac sufferers. A host of companies and restaurants have responded to the situation but with the improved choice has come many products that are high in fats and sugars, nutritionists say. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Dr. Marcon is skeptical about putting children on such a restricted diet if they do not have celiac disease, warning that it is not necessarily nutritious.

In fact, she says, gluten-free foods can be quite harmful due to the extra additives and preservatives in gluten-free products like cookies and breads. As well, they are often high in calories — sugars and fats — to make up for the removal of gluten.

In fact, gluten-free diets are often accompanied by a buyer-beware stigma because many people who go on them gain weight, see an increase in their cholesterol and continue to have vitamin deficiencies since processed gluten-free foods can lack the nutritional benefits found in regular staples such as bread and whole grain rice (which contains no gluten).

Too much exposure

If parents suspect their child is gluten intolerant, for which there is no specific test, or would benefit from a healthier diet, Dr. Marcon recommends they consult a doctor to check for the genetic markers of celiac disease and to rule out other common illnesses with similar symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome.

However, advocates of a gluten-restricted diet argue that while medical professionals are right to be wary about advocating a wholesale change to a child's diet, they can also be overly cautious.

Michelle Gompf, a holistic nutritionist based in Toronto, contends that the widespread prevalence of gluten in most kid-favoured meals can eventually lead to intolerance because "anyone who eats too much of anything will have too much exposure and will lose the enzymes to break down foods."

Gompf is a big advocate of home-cooked meals that force both the parent and the child to pay closer attention to what they are eating.

She also points out that, in comparison to the Sabherwals' experience, there is now a significant support system ranging from nutritionists like herself to services such as Ontario's Eat Right program where parents can speak with a registered dietitian about proper nutrition.

Once parents receive the right information, she says, they can avoid the kind of poorly planned diets that have led health professionals to dismiss gluten-restricted diets as just another unbalanced fad.

Watch what your child eats

As many people debate whether to go gluten-free or not — or even whether just to reduce the amount of gluten consumed — it is clear that any diet depends on how a child's body specifically reacts to what he or she eats.

For Krista Thomson-Nazareth, the decision to put her young sons on a gluten-restricted diet was influenced by how her own body had responded to certain nutritional choices. It was not simply about jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon.

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A wide array of gluten-free products are now available and the selection has been doubling almost annually, one report said. (Associated Press)

Even though her mother is a nurse and her father a family physician, she struggled in the past to control her weight and deal with deteriorating health.

As she explored alternative health practices, she found a close connection between diet and health, which motivated her to learn what foods suited her, instead of solely relying on what doctors or studies said.

Now a natural health practitioner in Oakville, Ont., Thomson-Nazareth encourages other parents to monitor their children's diet closely as a first step in improving their nutritional health.

By doing so, she noticed that Myka, her two-and-half-year-old son, was very reactive to certain foods, which led Thomson-Nazareth to introduce some non-gluten grains and treats.

"This switch has been very helpful — we have noticed a huge improvement," she says. "At the end of the day, Myka is much happier and calms down easier."

At the same time, many parents are turned off by the idea of gambling with their child's diet.

Markian Chorostil refuses to put his six-year-old son on a gluten-restricted diet. "No, I wouldn't do it unless I educate myself," says Chorostil, a former physiotherapist who recently became a firefighter.

While he has introduced his son to gluten-free grains like quinoa, Chorostil believes that it is up to his son to decide what foods he prefers, within the limits set by Chorostil and his wife.

However, Chorostil agrees with Thomson-Nazareth that parents must conduct their own research before blindly accepting what can be conflicting professional advice.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story contained a sentence that read: "In fact, gluten-free diets are often accompanied by a buyer-beware stigma because many people who go on them gain weight, see an increase in their cholesterol and continue to have vitamin deficiencies since processed gluten-free foods can lack the nutritional benefits found in regular staples such as whole wheat rice and bread." It was rewritten for clarity and to change the reference to whole grain rice.
    Oct 16, 2013 11:14 PM ET