Testing for gluten sensitivity in a 4-year-old

“Gluten (from Latin gluten, “glue”) is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape and often gives the final product a chewy texture… Worldwide, gluten is a source of protein, both in foods prepared directly from sources containing it, and as an additive to foods otherwise low in protein… About 1 in 133 people in developed nations have intolerance to gluten.” -wikipedia

Recently, we began a gluten elimination diet experiment with The Little Helping. At his 4-year well child check up his doctor noticed tiny bumps on his skin. He has had the tiny bumps as long as I can recall. I knew that they could be a sign of food intolerance but he hadn’t exhibited any other major signs so I figured it was just his normal skin texture. After asking me a couple of basic questions — do they bother him and does temperature affect the severity — his doctor suggested we try removing gluten from his diet for a month and see what happens. The doctor pointed out that even if the bumps aren’t troublesome they could be an indicator of a greater internal problem and it would be worth ruling out a few causes. I agreed.

There are a number of reasons I delayed the experiment until now: holidays, illness, weather… When it came down to it I was a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of making a shift of this caliber to my son’s diet. I’m all for better living through nutrition, however I take comfort in all foods being up for grabs in some form or another. I’ll be my own guinea pig, but it felt harsh to impose a sweeping change without consent. Am I a hypocrite? Perhaps. Can I chalk my reservations up to being an anxious, nervous, overtired mother? More likely.

I spent a couple of weeks planning and preparing our kitchen for the shift. The 4-year-old’s world is a very straight forward place — if things aren’t happening right now there is no point in bring them up. I don’t tell him to put his coat on unless I also want him to walk out the door, I don’t ask him if he wants to go visit his friend until shortly before a play-date, and I didn’t tell him about the experiment until the meal before we began.

Sunday night I told him we were going to start talking a lot about a new thing called gluten. His response, “Oh, what’s gluten?” I was a little taken aback. I’m not sure what I expected him to say but apparently I didn’t expect the most obvious response. We chatted a bit more and I tried to frame everything in terms of a science experiment. He has a science kit and besides thinking it is beyond cool he also understands that the basic idea of an experiment. He seemed interested and indicated his willingness to give the experiment a try. I did my best to outline what would happen in 4-year-old sized terms without talking down to him. After a few minutes of following the conversation he jumped up mid-sentence to return to his Lego creations. As he darted out of the room Mr. Second Helpings and I shrugged and agreed that ‘it’ went well.

So far Mr. Second Helpings and I are trying to keep the focus on the things The Little Helping can eat rather than the things that are now off the menu. In our own experience dietary shifts are far easier to embrace when you feel like you have options. Unfortunately an elimination diet is about the thing you aren’t eating. Last night we had our first sad moment when he had to say no thank you to some pretzels and tears were shed when the M&Ms he had been lusting after were nearly taken away. After the reality checks we had another conversation. While we waited for his gluten free pizza to bake he sat quietly then looked up with puppy dog eyes and asked, “Does cake have gluten?” “Yes Bud, it usually does.”

It’s hard to know what he understands after just a couple of days. It will be an interesting month and with any experiment there will be a result though what it will be remains to be seen. I’ll keep you posted.

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