The Kids Are Alright: How My Children Went Gluten-Free

This week I will be focusing on gluten as it marks the four year anniversary since I went  gluten-free.

When my children came in and saw me uploading pictures of Dick’s Drive-In onto my last post (see “Glutton to Gluten-Free”) they all simultaneously began audibly salivating at the image of the logo.  Amazing how old habits die hard, even when we are young.  My children and husband are all gluten-free with me by choice.  They very kindly made the switch as an act of support and solidarity.  Besides, when I first went gluten-free I,  much like a new-vampire, had a very one-track mind and would become frenzied at the aroma and sight of tasty, gluten-ous vittles.  There was just no way that I was going to be successful if any gluten was to come into the house.   Yeah, yeah, I am weak and my story with gluten could be Homer Simpson’s story with gluten, but unlike Homer, I am no longer fat and sick.

 My kids were 8, 5, and 3 when I made the switch to go gluten-free.  Up to that point they ate how I ate.  Our family meals rotated between pizza, hamburgers and fries, cheesy macaroni and beef, fried chicken, and extra cheesy macaroni and cheese…..and those were just the meals that I made myself at home! This did not include all the restaurant and fast food my family and I were also consuming.

The kids made a relatively smooth transition to eating gluten-free mainly for two reasons.  First, I was very open and honest about what gluten was and what it did to my body. Second, I allowed them to make their own choices about the foods they ate.  I never forbade them from eating gluten and I still don’t. 

What They Don’t Tell You About Going Gluten-Free

 When my family went gluten-free it wasn’t easy.  There was a learning curve that we all had to overcome.  It is mind-boggling how many foods actually contain gluten.  I mean, ice cream?  French fries? Soy sauce?  C’mon!  After a little time reading labels it is easy to begin to ask yourself, “What DOESN’T have gluten in it?”  When you first stop eating gluten, you begin to feel better right away, but it is typically short lived.  Hidden gluten disguised by long-unpronounceable ingredients will come out of nowhere and undo all your hard earned progress.  Any symptoms you had before going gluten-free will come back with a vengeance.  When this happens is when most people quit, or get really paranoid about the food they eat.  Of course, I was one of the paranoid.  I didn’t trust anything that I myself didn’t cook.  The benefits of going gluten-free far outweighed the life that was waiting for me if I didn’t, so I didn’t give up.  Rheumatoid arthritis was not going to take me.

Gluten 101

Gluten was a hot topic in our house for several months while we learned to navigate the gluten mine-field.  My children and I discussed food a lot.  I wanted them to understand that their mama needed their support; that they were integral in this transition. To help them understand why I wasn’t going to buy or eat gluten-y food any longer,  I explained what gluten did to me on a level that they could comprehend.  In addition to reading several books on anatomy, and giving the simplified scientific explanation of gluten being a large protein that damages the villi of the small intestine and disrupts the absorption of nutrients,  I broke it down even further by telling them that gluten was like a large jagged rock that would bang, scrape, and injure their small intestine.  I described the small intestine as having little arms like a sea anemone that would suck up vitamins from food.  When the “gluten rocks”  would hurt the villi, they made it so your body couldn’t absorb enough vitamins and you would get sick. I think it is pretty safe to say that my kids “got” it after all my effort.

Gluten is also very sticky, and easily adheres to the foods and surfaces it touches. That is why gluten-free folks have to be particularly diligent when eating out.  To illustrate how gluten could contaminate other foods and cooking surfaces, I used the analogy of the half-eaten lollipop that sticks to everything it touches and leaves behind a sticky mess. 

Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest

I do not forbid my children from eating anything that I have deemed unhealthy for myself because  I don’t ever want them to feel as if they are missing out or are powerless in the choices that they make.   So, from the beginning, when the opportunity presented itself, like at a party or at Costco, I would always remind them that they were free to indulge .  At first, the kids were conflicted.  A part of them felt that if they were to eat , they were somehow being disloyal to me, but another, much louder part of them just couldn’t pass up the offer of cookies and cake.  I couldn’t blame them, I could hardly pass those foods up myself!  Something very interesting happened when the children switched back and forth between gluten and gluten-free diets. They noticed that gluten made them feel bad.  My son had the first and most pronounced reaction.  He had always been a sickly child.  He had asthma and ADHD-like behavior that made him high-maintenance to parent.  He noticed that when he was gluten-free, his asthma disappeared.  His dad and I noticed the behavior differences.  He wasn’t bouncing off the walls any longer; he could actually focus and stay on task as long as he was eating gluten-free.

My middle daughter suffered with joint pain, canker sores, and severe mood swings that would always end in crying jags when she would go back to eating gluten.  My youngest would get diarrhea and eczema. Even when they only ate a little bit, the effects would be severe and they’d last for days.

Despite knowing the physical consequences of eating gluten,  I still allowed the children to decide whether the food was worth it.  At first they could not resist and would justify themselves to me by saying that a little would not hurt them;  but gluten is highly addictive, so “eating a little” is always a slippery slope.  Inevitably, they would end up sick and very uncomfortable.  Needless to say, it did not take long before the children joined me as one of the food paranoid.  To this day, they all avoid gluten like the plague – not because I forced them, but because they were given a choice and allowed to feel the consequences.

Dealing with my own health problems while trying to be a good mom is difficult enough, I never want to add a power struggle over food to the mix.  

Kids Aren’t as Stupid as They Look

Our children are capable of understanding and enduring a lot more than we give them credit for.  My children were very young when I began this journey to health and healing, but I have included them in every step of the way.  It hasn’t been easy on them – they have been my hands and feet when I have been too crippled to get out of bed.  They have been shoulders to cry on when the pain was too great, and my comic relief when death would have been a welcome release. They have witnessed all that the human experience has to offer in their short lives and more.  The experience has made them compassionate and wise beyond their years. 

Childhood is not impervious to the injustices of reality and children should not be sheltered from the adversity of the family.  We can’t really hide anything from them anyway, so why insult them?  Through respectful age-appropriate communication children are able to comprehend a lot.  Moreover, when they are an active participant in the family, they will rise to the to the occasion when they are called upon.   Adversity isn’t always harmful, in fact, it presents many learning opportunities if the right approach is taken.  Yes, rheumatoid arthritis sucks for everyone in my house, but it is the challenge that life has presented us.  How we choose to deal with it is within our power.   My children are well adjusted, happy, self-sufficient kids who can cook, clean, shop for groceries, care for pets, and make a plan and execute it as a team.  Their success didn’t come from a parenting book or class, but is simply a response to their mother’s rheumatoid arthritis.

Your kids are not your joints.  They need not be permanently damaged by rheumatoid arthritis.  In fact, they have a lot to gain if allowed to walk with you and keep you company through this journey.

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