Starting a gluten-free, casein-free or similar diet with children doesn't have to be scary; you just have to break it down into little pieces.
So says Meg Mayer-Costa, Student Health Services dietitian at the University of Pittsburgh and the dietitian for the autism-and-diet study at Children's Hospital's Autism Center.
When Ms. Mayer-Costa met with each family involved in the GFCF group, "First I tried to get my mind around how the child ate."
She latched onto any meats, fruits or vegetables, which all are naturally gluten-free and casein-free.
"I could list those and say, 'Wow, you've really got a lot of this down pat already.'"
She next focused on general nutrition and digestion. For instance, if a child guzzled fruit juice all day, she pointed out that juice might cause diarrhea just as much as food sensitivities.
Only then did she advise families on changing gluten- and casein-containing foods. She stressed replacing rather than deleting or getting rid of foods, believing the negative language on many Web sites makes families fearful.
She distributed a packet of information including lists of gluten- and casein-containing ingredients to search out on food labels, as well as foods that can replace the taboos.
She also explained the science. Gluten and casein, both proteins, are often used as thickeners or binders to hold products together. When in doubt, she said, consider whether additives might have been used to thicken or bind food (canned soups and hot dogs are good examples), and stay away from those things unless you're sure they're gluten-free and casein-free.
A few other tips:
• Several GFCF families suggested seeking out a doctor's advice rather than experimenting solo, noting food allergies and sensitivities can vary from person to person.
• Watch out for "trick" products. For instance, some soy yogurts and veggie cheeses contain dairy products and thus casein.
• Identify potential problem areas. "Does Grandma watch the child every third Wednesday, and she doesn't believe in the diet?" Ms. Mayer-Costa offered as an example.
• Get help from more experienced families.
• Experiment in order to increase intake of nutritious foods. "If the child won't eat an apple, would they eat applesauce or drink apple juice? Or could we make a fruit smoothie?" Ms. Mayer-Costa suggested.
• Vary the diet when possible, but don't worry if the child eats the same thing for lunch every day. Typical kids do that, too.
• Be careful, but try not to worry. "Live with as little stress as possible," Ms. Mayer-Costa said.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
Rebecca Sodergren is an Oakwood freelance writer.