Gluten Safety Education for Children

Hi there! I wanted to make a post especially for the young people who just found out that they can’t eat gluten or grains anymore. This is a game changer, guys! The bad news is that there might be some awkward moments ahead of you as you teach your friends and families how to keep you safe from Evil Gluten. The good news is that you now have the knowledge and power to make choices that will make it possible for you to feel better and be happy and healthy for the rest of your life! I know it might be tempting to eat the foods you used to eat, but even if you don’t feel it, it’s hurting you in a serious way and it’s important that you take this responsibility to choose wisely seriously.

Let me see if I can explain how it works. Every human body has an immune system that is designed to help keep us healthy by recognizing foreign substances or infections that don’t belong in that part of the body. You can think of your immune cells as highly trained, microscopic ninjas that are all over your body, inside and out. They especially like to hang out in areas like your nose, mouth, and digestive tract. When they see bad guys (like viruses, or pollen, or gluten) they spring into action to protect you. The trouble is that in the process of taking down gluten, they can also damage your small intestine, making it harder for your body to absorb vitamins and minerals. That’s why it’s really common for people who have Celiac and other people who have trouble with gluten to need extra vitamins like iron and B12.

Picture this with me for a minute: your small intestine is a long squiggly tube that connects from your stomach to your large intestine. It’s where your body does some of it’s digestion, and where it starts to absorb nutrients from your food. That tube is lined with microvilli that look a bit like shag carpeting or a sea anemone. When your ninjas have been fighting evil gluten too hard for too long, those microvilli get worn off and it starts to look more like berber carpet or mostly flat…kind of like your favourite teddy bear whose fur has been loved off (doctor’s might call this Marsh 4, with Marsh 1 being the least damage). This is part of why we feel so sick, have no energy, and don’t grow as well when we are eating Evil Gluten.

We might also develop more allergies because food that isn’t totally digested gets through the holes in your intestinal wall that were caused by the damage… your immune system sees these foods as intruders because they don’t recognize them in that form (they recognize an amino acid, but not the chicken it comes from), so they attack, and you develop an allergic response. I have good news though! When you stop eating Evil Gluten, the ninjas calm down and go back into hiding, and your body sends in other special agents to help heal and regrow those microvilli and heal the tears in the wall. When this happens, our bodies are able to absorb vitamins and nutrients from our food, we get more energy, we can think more clearly, we feel more calm and happy, we sleep better, our tummies feel better, we poop better, and life is good. Does that help you understand why it’s so important that you stop eating gluten?

When you’re at home, your parents will probably help you to make happy food choices. It might be helpful to have a special basket of snacks that are safe and special just for you (especially if the other people in your house are going to keep eating the same as before). When you go to school or to a friend’s house, it might be easiest to pack your own safe food so you know for sure you won’t eat something that makes you feel sick again. For your best friend’s house, or grandma and grandpa’s house, maybe your parents can help you create a special snack basket for there too. These people who love you and know you best might also be willing to make special food for you. I’ve written a letter as an example that you or your parents might use to teach these special people how to cook safe food for you.

As long as you’re not allergic to fruit, it’s probably safe to have a whole, washed piece of fruit as a snack (like a banana, a whole apple, a whole peach) – just remember to wash your hands first, and if you’re going to dry the piece of fruit, it’s best to use a clean towel, or paper towel. You can also watch for the special GF symbol in a circle that tells you something is gluten free. If it’s from a package, make sure everyone who is putting their hands in has washed them too (or you can be the one to serve the snack to others, or have your own separate dish). It might also be smart (especially in the beginning) to call your parents to help make sure a snack is safe. It’s always ok to ask an adult: “can we please call my mom/dad and make sure this snack is safe for me?” It might also help to make a card to keep in your backpack with evil ingredients that you or an adult can look for on food labels.

You can also learn to recognize key words and symbols.

Here are some general rules:

  • If you buy it in the bakery section of the grocery store, it has gluten unless it says specifically it doesn’t. Anything made with dough or noodles or pasta. Perogies, dumplings, soups, chicken strips, burger patties, hot dogs, buns, sauces (like soy, bbq, ketchup, cheese or alfredo sauce), onion rings, fries with breading on them or cooked in the same deep fryer as chicken nuggets/strips, or onion rings, croutons, crackers, deli meat, whole grain or multigrain chips (like Sun Chips or the special tortilla chips), ice cream cones, ice cream with cookie dough or brownie pieces, some candy bars or candy. (Smarties are a sneaky candy – they look like they should be gluten free, but they aren’t).
  • If it’s something you spread on bread (jam, mayo, butter, ketchup, or nut butter) it needs to be from a squeeze tube, or a special jar that has never been used with gluten containing bread before.
  • Watch for the GF symbol in circle (show image) or big labels that say “Gluten Free”
  • Your food can’t be on the same plate or in the container with the regular gluten food. If they get you a special gluten free cupcake or something, it has to be in its own separate container.

I know it sounds crazy, but there can also be gluten in some toys and craft supplies. One of the more obvious things is making crafts with macaroni or other pasta. Others that might be less obvious are: Play Dough, moon sand, silly putty, gak, oozy gooey stuff, paper mache, some types of glue or paint (especially if it’s home made), some types of modeling clay, and some types of soap (remember to check bubble solution). It can also be in chapstick, gum, mints, and makeup.

I know this sounds like an awful lot of stuff to remember, and it’s hard at the beginning especially so please be patient and kind with yourself. It does get easier with practice, and pretty soon you’ll be handling it like a pro. I promise you will still have fun, and still have lots of yummy things in your life without gluten. Please share your special tricks and tips with the group so we can keep learning from each other!

Here’s a little something for the parents too:

Twenty percent of children with Celiac disease do not heal on a gluten-free diet

Having a Child with Celiac Disease Can Be Difficult for Parents

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