Is it healthy to put children on a vegan or gluten-free diet?

FILE: A baby with messy face eating. The Canadian Press/Ableimages

There’s a lot of information out there about the nutritional benefits of one diet over another. But what exactly is the best diet for a growing child?

Jennifer Sygo, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Canada in Toronto, said children’s bodies “want to be challenged” and that parents may be able to avoid future problems by feeding their kids a wide variety of foods.

A Gluten-free diet

Sygo said babies that are exposed to gluten — such as wheat, barley or rye — or allergens like peanuts at a young age have a reduced chance of developing an intolerance or allergy to certain foods.

In fact, she said exposure to these foods may be the best protection against developing celiac disease or other disorders.

“It’s almost like the body has a window where it will actually tolerate those foods better if we include them versus exclude them.”’

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A pediatrician at Southport Pediatrics said the problem of gluten sensitivity is a controversial one, but agrees children should be fed a wide variety of healthy foods.

“I think the problem is the in-between group,” Dr. Peter Nieman said. “The people who are gluten sensitive [not celiac],” he told News Talk 770. “It has been overdiagnosed. Many people think they’re sensitive to gluten when, in fact, they are not.”

Both Nieman and Sygo say parents who are celiac or have an allergy shouldn’t necessarily expect their children to develop the same disorder or food sensitivities.

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Nieman said the risk is slightly higher if the parents have celiac disease, “but not high enough that you should just assume there’s a problem until proven otherwise.”

He said the only way to truly determine if your child has celiac disease is to work with a doctor or a dietitian. He said they will conduct a blood test or a biopsy of the gut.

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LISTEN: Registered dietitian on feeding children a gluten-free or vegetarian diet

A vegetarian diet

Just as a vegan or vegetarian diet can be healthy for an adult, it can also be healthy for young children if attention is paid to proper nutrition, Sygo said.

She told News Talk 770 that a vegetarian diet has the benefit of adding “interesting foods” that are not necessarily a part of the average diet, such as lentils, beans or chickpeas.

“I think nobody can argue against a plant-based diet,” Nieman added. “Lots of fruits, lots of vegetables. Not too many sugary, greasy, fatty foods. I think as a general principle [you should] introduce healthy foods as early as possible.”
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He said we should not discriminate against parents who want to feed their children a plant-based diet, as the health benefits of this type of nutrition are clear.

However, Sygo said parents who put their kids on a vegetarian or vegan diet should pay close attention to the nutritional labels on foods to ensure the child’s needs are being met.

She warns against swapping out cow’s milk for most nut milks, for example.

“The majority of them, other than soy milk, don’t have any protein in them,” she explained.

“If you wean a child from breast milk, which does contain protein, and you switch them to almond milk or cashew milk or rice milk – those milks are deficient of key amino acids, or [the] building blocks of protein that the baby needs to grow.”

On this point, Neiman said he’s cautious but not in total agreement. He told News Talk 770 that cow’s milk is one source of nutrition, but it is not the only source.

He pointed to a study out of Toronto that suggested non-dairy alternatives may impact the growth of a child. But said he doesn’t believe the results are conclusive.

“The problem is … there’s no longer-term studies to confirm this and, for example, if these patients get older and go through adolescence, maybe they’ll catch up,” he said.

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“I don’t think the final word has been said on how children grow in the long term.”

Nieman said he presents his own patients with current research and also helps them find alternative protein sources for their child if they request it.

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Identifying allergies

Parents who are concerned their child may have an allergy should watch for visual symptoms, such as eczema (a red rash), hives or itching.

Other more subtle signs could include gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting, bloating or gas after eating certain foods.

However, Sygo also notes that children who are diagnosed with allergies at a young age might outgrow those allergies later in life.

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“The body changes over time,” she explained.

She added any efforts to re-test for allergies or reintroduce certain foods back into a child’s diet should be done with extreme caution.

Nieman said it is safe for parents to cautiously reintroduce certain foods, like dairy and gluten, in small amounts after the age of three. The one notable exception, he said, is a nut allergy.

“You cannot do that on your own,” he said.

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