Going back to school gluten-free

As summer wraps up, it is time to get ready for school. Besides the usual stress of friends, activities, and grades, some will face an even bigger challenge — sticking to a gluten-free diet.

At home, many of us have a fighting chance of monitoring what our child eats. At school, this type of control isn’t possible.

There are several things that you and your family can do in advance to make this transition as smooth as possible.

Go to the doctor

Make sure that you are seeing a health care professional for your child’s gluten-free health needs. Many conditions that necessitate a gluten-free diet, like celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, require regular health care follow-up.

Doctor’s offices are also a great wealth of important gluten-free resources, such as dieticians, support groups, and blogs.

Be sure to ask your doctor for a note explaining your child’s special dietary needs. It may also come in handy for a tax write-off at the end of the year.

Education, education, education

While it seems next to impossible to educate a 3 year old on what is gluten-free and what is not, it never hurts to try. Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your child is to help her understand her condition and what makes it better.

Almost all families with children who need a gluten-free diet make their household gluten-free. Little ones are sponges that learn best by observation. Chances are that they already know a lot about the types of foods they should avoid, and which are okay.

I recommend that my patients with celiac disease visit with a dietician at least once a year to review their diets and make sure that they are getting the proper balance of nutrients essential for their growth.

People actually know what gluten-free means

All the hype behind gluten-free has done one thing — raised awareness of the condition. So, chances are that when you meet with a teacher or principal, you won’t get that “deer in the headlights” look.

So instead of trying to prepare a dissertation on what gluten-free means, you should focus instead on your goals.

I recommend setting up a meeting with your child’s teacher, principal, and cafeteria manager before school starts. You may be surprised to learn that they already have a gluten-free system in place. If not, just think of the other kids you’ll be helping if you help them set up a plan.

One aspect of eating gluten-free that many don’t understand is that it is not truly a food allergy like a peanut allergy. With true food allergies, eating the foods (or inhaling food dust in very sensitive people) can lead to a sudden-onset, life-threatening swelling of the airway. If someone with celiac disease eats gluten, the immediate effects are much less obvious.

Don’t be afraid of the lunch lady

You don’t have to stress about making your child’s lunch every day. Many schools now offer a healthy selection of gluten-free foods. Some people advocate a special table for children with dietary restrictions, but I find that this often does more harm than good. Being singled out on day one as different makes for a difficult start to the new school year.

Also, keep in mind that despite your best intentions, you can’t control the other children at school who may flaunt gluten-containing temptations. Remember, a child who understands her condition is always the best prevention.

If it sounds too good to be true…

While hope is on the horizon in terms of ways to combat celiac disease in pill form, the only option right now is following a gluten-free diet. Avoid the enticement to take a dietary supplement that promises to digest gluten “before it becomes a problem.” Just ask anyone with lactose intolerance, you can take all the Lactaid in the world, but you’ll still pay the piper if you eat dairy.

A little bit isn’t the end of the world

You don’t want your gluten-sensitive child to eat a little gluten on a regular basis, but take comfort in knowing that medical studies have shown that if your child has a little bit of gluten here and there, she still does fine.

Here’s to a great school year.

Dr. Dustin James, known as The Tummy Doc, is a board-certified gastroenterologist and author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Digestive Health.” For more, visit www.enteralhealth.com, www.facebook.com/enteralhealth, www.twitter.com/thetummydoc, and www.instagram.com/thetummydocchannel.

Reading, sharing, or other utilization of this article does not establish a doctor-patient relationship with the article’s author. As always, be sure to consult with your physician regarding your health-related issues before initiating or changing any medicines.

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