When your family has a specific routine or diet, it can be tempting to have your children follow it too. Maybe you’re vegan for ethical reasons and are deciding whether to feed your baby dairy. Or maybe your family member has an allergy, intolerance, or other condition that makes eating gluten or dairy uncomfortable or unsafe? Perhaps you are simply concerned about your child eating too many unhealthy or highly processed foods. Whatever your concern, keep reading for an overview of what you should know about whether dairy free or gluten free diets for kids are healthy. 

Gluten Free Diets

Gluten, a protein found in many breads, pastas, and baked goods among other foods, is not inherently bad. So why do we see “gluten-free” foods all over our local health food stores? While some people choose to go gluten free because they feel better without it, a gluten-free diet for kids is typically reserved for those who have been diagnosed with either celiac disease or a wheat allergy. Consuming gluten with certain diagnosed conditions can actually make people sick, and in these cases, cutting it out altogether is likely the only way that person can stay healthy. 

However, if your child does not have a specific condition that makes eating gluten problematic for them, it can actually be potentially unhealthy to cut it out of their diet. One reason is that many healthy foods with gluten, such as whole grains, contain wonderful fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It is also important to keep in mind that diets without gluten might make it more difficult to keep your child’s calorie intake high enough to sustain their rapid growth and development. 

Another reason is that eating more gluten-free foods without glutenous foods to balance it out might increase your child’s intake of certain foods with unhealthy ingredients. For example, some gluten-free products are highly processed. Essentially, cutting out a large portion of a typical diet might result in eating a lot of fewer ingredients and when considering the best nutrition, a balanced diet for kids is key! Luckily, with careful planning, gluten-free diets can still be healthy, so make sure to discuss options with your pediatrician to ensure your child is getting all of the nutrients they need. 

Dairy Free Diets

Dairy products such as milks, cheeses, butter, creams, and yogurts from animals can be excellent sources of calcium, fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals for your child. However it is not uncommon for kids to have lactose intolerance, milk allergies, or simply for a person or family to have an aversion to dairy for its taste, ethical, or religious reasons. So, is it healthy to opt for a dairy-free diet for kids?

When it comes to allergies, clearly it is essential to entirely avoid ingredients that can harm your child. Cow’s milk is a common allergen for young kids, however, many children grow out of it. Avoiding milk in the meantime, or according to your pediatrician’s directions can be crucial to health and safety. Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, can be uncomfortable but is generally not harmful. This condition results from a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which causes an inability to digest products with lactose, a natural sugar found in dairy, especially milk. Many children can eat small amounts of dairy products without discomfort or can tolerate lactose-free options. An alternative to removing dairy from your child’s diet due to lactose intolerance is by using lactase pills or drops to help them digest properly. 

When making your decision, keep in mind that dairy products are often the easiest and most effective sources of calcium for children. Kids can benefit a lot from keeping dairy products in their diet for their ability to help build strong bones and teeth. As we reach adulthood, it becomes easier to cut these things out because of the strong foundation created by these ingredients earlier in life. However, without them at a younger age, and especially during the growth spurts of the teen years, it can be more difficult to build the proper bone mass and might increase the risk for osteoporosis down the road. So, if you decide to limit or cut dairy out of your child’s diet, be sure to correct for potential deficiencies with lifestyle choices that promote strong bone growth such as other calcium rich foods, vitamin D, and exercise.

The Verdict

Ultimately, the healthiest option for a child without a medical concern such as celiac disease, allergies, or intolerances is finding a balanced diet for kids. Many gluten-free or dairy-free diets can encourage kids to eat new, less healthy things, or less variety, and result in less balance. However, if kids on these diets opt for more fruits, vegetables, and other healthier options, thereby lowering their highly processed food intake, they might improve their health. Therefore, if your family is opting for these diets for ethical or religious reasons, keep in mind that careful planning might be required to ensure your child has the proper nutrition.  

For other concerns, one way to strike an appropriate balance for your family that allows your child to have more healthy food freedom is by keeping dairy and gluten in your child’s diet while limiting highly processed foods and introducing additional foods such as rice or nut milks that increase variety! If you think a diet change is necessary for your child, be sure to talk to your pediatrician about it before you make changes in your child’s meals that could impact their ability to be fully nourished with a high variety of healthy foods. They can assist you in creating a plan to promote the best nutrition under each necessary diet circumstance.

Further Considerations

When making decisions about what foods to keep and cut in your child’s diet, it is important to also consider the effect that these changes might have on the other aspects of your and your child’s life. Not only are gluten-free and dairy-free diets for kids often expensive but they can also add an additional layer of complication for your child when they want to eat at a friend’s house, enjoy lunches provided by their school, or even when they are ready to start cooking meals for themselves. 

The decisions we make for our kids now, especially with regard to diet, can make massive impacts on their future health, wellness, and relationships with food. That is another reason why we recommend consulting your child’s doctor when making these big decisions so that you can feel confident and assured that you are making the best possible choice for your child. 

At Coastal Kids Pediatrics, we are committed to helping you ensure the best health of your child every step of the way. We understand that navigating the best advice on dieting can be extremely difficult and confusing. With dairy-free and gluten-free diets for kids becoming more of a curiosity, it is important to remember that diet recommendations are different for children than adults. So, if you are considering a diet change for your child, please reach out to your pediatrician for information, advice, and assistance on how to offer the best nutrition to your child as possible. To make an appointment, visit us at www.coastalkids.com.