Organic and Thrifty

Transitioning A Child To A Gluten-Free Sugar-Free Diet

Recently I’ve gotten several questions in this regard, so I thought I should share some of the tips that have worked for us in our transition to a gluten free (grain free, really) and sugar free diet.  For our situation, it was really a medical necessity and I had no real choice but to go “cold turkey” on the gluten and the refined sugars.  For those for which it is not necessarily a “medical necessity” (I use quotes because I think that every child should be off of refined sugar and should limit all starchy grains significantly), it’s nice to be able to gradually make the transition in a reasonable way without having to go cold turkey.

Moderation or Cold Turkey?

There are two schools of thought on this one.  I say that it depends upon the health of your child.  Refined carbs (white flour, white sugar, even white rice) are stripped of all of their nutrients and thus actually deplete the body of mineralsduring digestion.  Not to mention the triggering of insulin, which over time, can become resistant and can lead to type II diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and obesity.  So the main quesiton is: How much is okay in moderation?

Here are some questions you should ask yourself with regard to sugar and moderation:

1. How many minerals do I want my child’s growing body to waste in order to process this “toaster pastry”?

2.How many empty calories do I want to give my child today?

3. How much insulin would I like my child’s pancreas to produce in order to deal with the effects of these foods?

Reasonably speaking, I think moderation with white flour/white sugar would look like one serving, one time per week, if at all.  The truth is, white sugar is addictive (and sugar addiction is linked closely to alcoholism) and if your child is the type who “can’t live without sugar” (as mine was!) then you really have to starve their little bodies of the sugar before they can break the addiction. So again, I say: It depends, but somewhere between none and a little bit.

Tips for the Transition

Everyone loves their treats, and I joke that I give my kids just as many treats as the next parent; only my rule is that a “treat’ is something that is nutrient-dense, full of good fats, protein, and unrefined, whole-food sweeteners (primarily using real fruit, raw honey, and stevia).

Note: If you suspect your child has candida, you really do need to get rid of all sweeteners (even natural ones) except for perhaps stevia. Grains and starches should also be eliminated for a time.  If you suspect that your child is suffering from a sugar addiction or candida, I strongly suggest taking him/her to a wholistic nutritionist or naturopath who can specifically guide you on a path to healing.  The GAPS dietis also an incredibly helpful therapeutic diet that healed my daughter of candida.

1. Know that above all else, your child’s body will eventually not miss the refined stuff.  I never thought that could possibly be true with our daughter who was so carb addicted, (and don’t get me wrong, she still loves an occasional, wholesome treat) but it’s so true! Their bodies really do want real, nutrient-dense food.  Once you break the sugar addiction cycle (which can be anywhere from 10-40 days), the body will start to crave less and desire nutrient-dense food.

2. Get the junk out of the house (if at all possible).If you have a disagreeable spouse or older child who is entrenched in their habits, you might need to settle for a lock box.  Point being, if every “choice” in your refrigerator/freezer/pantry is one you can live with your child eating, then you are much more likely to have success. Therefore, get rid of juice (try a fruity iced herbal tea flavored with stevia), boxed crackers, cookies, granola bars, pasta, etc.

3. Find good quality substitutions, but use them sparingly.  Brown rice pasta is a reasonable substitute for wheat noodles (although it’s still very starchy, and those in the candida category need to find other innovative pasta bases, like my zucchini noodles or kelp noodles).  Almond flour is an incredible substitute for wheat flour. With its balanced, nutrient-dense profile of fats, minerals, and protein it is an ideal choice for crackers, cakes, muffins, pancakes, pie crusts, and breading.  I highly recommend amazing food blogger Elana Amsterdam’s The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook. Let me caution, however, that it’s easy (and expensive) to go overboard with gluten-free substitutions. It’s better to ultimately learn to live with less baked goods are more whole, real foods. We need to get to the point where an apple or orange is an amazingly indulgent dessert.  I also highly recommend Bruce Fife’s Cooking with Coconut Flour.  Both of these books have inspired birthday cakes and desserts that have gotten rave reviews by “regular folks”.  These books (and countless others) provide recipes for pizza crust, pancakes, pie crusts, cobblers, and cookies that are gluten free and refined sugar free!

4. Avoid poor quality substitutions.  One of my biggest problems with the whole “gluten free” movement is that I think it misses the boat in that it often substitutes one high-carb paradigm for another.  Nearly all of the gluten-free baking mixes on the market use cane sugar (often refined), white rice flour, and countless starches, such as potato starch. All of these components render these goodies pretty high on the glycemic index, thus not really being good at all.  Always read the labels; better yet, buy food without a label (or make it yourself!). It will be a great day when there are gluten-free baking mixes that include almond flour and coconut flour as their main components!

5. Make sure your child is getting enough good quality fats. Fats are critical for the absorption of many key nutrients for immunity, such as fat-soluble A and D.  Fats also give us a feeling of satiation and they balance our blood sugar as well.  Virgin, unrefined coconut oil is ideal for its antimicrobial and antiviral properties. It’s also a medium-chain fatty acid, which means that it is absorbed in the small intestine and doesn’t require bile salts to be released to break them down. Thus, MCFAs provide quick energy and facilitate the body’s transition to using fats for energy.  Organic butter, nuts, avocados, raw whole milk, seeds, animal fats, and coconut oil are all good quality fats.

6. Be firm.  You are the parent, you don’t have to give in.  And if they refuse to eat the gluten free food you are providing, let them go ahead and starve for a day (I promise they will eat eventually and will be fine).  When hunger comes from the stomach rather than the taste buds, it’s amazing how appetizing a plate of broccoli drizzled with butter is.  Be sure to provide “incentives” for eating their dinner, such as a delicious whole food treat. Nut balls are an easy and quick treat most kids love.  If they refuse to eat your dinner, you may want to find a “reasonable compromise” that requires no work for you to prepare that they can eat instead. (In our family, you are welcome to eat the dinner I make or a can of sardines or hard-boiled egg).  The alternatives are acceptable to me, easy to prepare, and not particularly appealing!

7. Start young. I plead with you!!! If you have a nursing baby who is just about to start solids, let me gently plead with you to make good choices from the start, and you will never have to backpedal and take away the bad.  Our second child was on real, whole foods from the start and we never compromised with candy, sugar, wheat, etc.  Instead, we fed him liver pate as a baby, introduced sardines shortly after 12 months, gave him lots of broths, seaweed, and all sorts of nutrient-dense foods.  He still loves them now, and has a taste for them rather than the empty foods. It’s so much easier to raise them without bad foods from the start if you can!

8. Accept your limitations and be okay with it.  If you are in a situaiton where you can’t control all the meals your child is eating, don’t worry.  If your child is getting a steady dose of wholesome meals at home, chances are the effects of the junk will be mitigated and it may not even be all that appealing.

9. If you are able to, pack food for your child to take to school/church/scouts/soccer/camp/etc.  I’m in the habit of always taking something with us wherever we go in case my children are hungry and there is nothing they can eat.  I often grab basic, portable things like crispy nuts, dried fruit, smoked salmon or jerky, and raw cheese.  Play the “allergy card” because most places that work with children understand this and comply.

10. You teach, you teach, you teach.  Teaching our children how to make good choices when they are not with us is a crucial life skill, and is something worth talking about often.  I’ve taught my children how to discriminate between “real food” and “fake food” and we always read labels.  We look at the weekly grocery store circulars and I point to various items and we talk about healthy and non-healthy choices.  I know, I’m a total nerdy nutcase!!!  But it’s worth it because I can really trust my 4 year old not to sneak the cookie off the kid’s table at church, or take the lollipop from the Trader Joe’s cashier (or even put up a “but whhhhhy Mommy??!??!?”).

Another great thing is to help the children learn to cook. It’s amazing to me how much more likely my kids are to eat what I make when they help me prepare it!  Even children as young as 9 months old can “help” while being carried in a sling or front pack to see what’s going on.

I hope these have been somewhat helpful, and offer this last thought: I think that fundamentally our bodies know how it feels to be healthy, and sugar is a major health inhibitor.  Once we get it out of the body, we begin to function better, have more focus, more energy, and more peace.