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Why a gluten-free diet may be bad for healthy kids

Is a gluten-free diet safe for healthy children?
/ Source: TODAY

Grocery stories are filled with breads, crackers, cereals and other foods labeled "gluten free." That might lead you to think gluten is a toxic substance. It isn’t.

gluten-free section
Gluten-free products in a supermarket.AP file

Other than a small percentage of people who have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, gluten — a mixture of two proteins found in grains like wheat and barley and commonly found in bread and pasta — is perfectly safe to consume. Many foods with gluten have essential nutrients.

But as gluten-free's popularity keeps rising, experts are worrying about the risks of the restrictive diet on healthy children.

Related: Gluten free: fad or alternative remedy

There are several problems for children without a medical issue being fed gluten-free products, according to a commentary published Friday in the Journal of Pediatrics. Chief among them:

  • They could be missing out on important nutrients

  • They may be getting excessive amounts of fat and sugar

  • They may be exposed to higher levels of toxins such arsenic

“Gluten-free processed foods are unevenly fortified,” said Dr. Norelle Reilly, author of the commentary and an assistant professor of pediatrics and director of Pediatric Celiac Disease at the Columbia University Medical Center. “They can be deficient in fiber, B-vitamins, magnesium, calcium, iron, folate and vitamin D.”

Even in the case of children who must consume a gluten-free diet, parents should consult with a nutritionist to make sure kids get a balanced diet, Reilly said.

While there has been a slight uptick in the diagnosis of celiac disease, that increase doesn't explain the rapid rise in the sales of gluten-free products, which increased by 136 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to the consumer research firm Mintel.

Many parents search the Internet when their children have a health problem and often find recommendations to switch to a gluten-free diet, says Reilly.

“They were trying to treat some sort of condition or symptom, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, headaches, or problems with attention,” she said. “Kids will often improve no matter what you do. So it’s often hard to tell if they’re improved because of a dietary change.”

It isn’t just about missing nutrients, Reilly said.

Many gluten-free products have higher quantities of fat and sugar compared to similar ones containing gluten — and that can lead to weight gain. Also, rice is often used as a substitute for gluten — and that can come with higher levels of toxins, such as arsenic.

RELATED: Limit arsenic levels in baby rice cereal, FDA says

The commentary, “nicely points out that, in healthy children, there is no evidence supporting the benefits of a gluten-free diet,” said Dr. Arvind Srinath, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “Unfortunately, a gluten-free diet in healthy children risks health, social and economic consequences for kids and families.”

The lack of fiber in gluten-free products can cause constipation or children may feel socially isolated when they're not eating the same foods as their friends, Srinath says.

RELATED: Gluten-free labeling standards kick in

“Parents become so focused on eliminating gluten, that’s all they are seeing with food selection, which can lead to nutritional imbalances because of extra sugars, fats and calories,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC health and nutrition editor. “It’s always important for parents to know that removing foods from their child’s diet without a biological need can be problematic for their health."