This lesson will help young people understand gluten allergy and gluten sensitivity. They will look for gluten in the food groups on MyPlate and think of ways to be kind to those who follow a gluten-free diet.
Before facilitating this lesson, you may want to review the following information about gluten-free diets. These facts can be shared with young people during your discussions.
- Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. (Experts recommend only consuming oats labeled gluten-free as cross-contact may occur when oats are grown side-by-side with wheat, barley or rye.) This includes a lot of foods you probably eat everyday like bread, cookies, crackers and pasta.
- The gluten in bread makes it soft and spongy. Gluten helps baked goods like bread, cakes and muffins rise and hold their shape. It also acts like glue to help food such as crackers to not crumble.
- There are many health claims surrounding following a gluten-free diet, some of which are not supported by scientific studies. Many believe that eating a gluten-free diet is healthier and will increase energy levels. This can be true if a well-executed gluten-free eating plan is established. It often means buying fewer processed foods and eating more fresh, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. If not carefully planned gluten containing foods are often swapped for more highly processed foods, which is an unhealthful way of eating.
- Gluten is harmless for most people, except those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.
- Celiac disease damages the small intestine and keeps the body from using nutrients from food. People who have celiac disease cannot eat any food that has gluten. Their immune system responds to the gluten by damaging the small intestine. It can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. They may also have a headache and feel really tired. If not treated it can affect growth and cause damage to the nervous system. It can also cause people to be malnourished.
- A gluten sensitivity is similar to celiac disease, but it does not damage the small intestine or affect growth and development. Eating gluten may cause someone with a gluten sensitivity to feel sick, but the person’s body will still be able to use the nutrients from the food he or she eats. Other symptoms someone may have who is gluten sensitive is “foggy mind”, depression, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, gas, constipation, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue when they eat gluten containing foods. They will want to eat gluten-free so they feel better every day.
- Food you eat has many nutrients (vitamins, minerals and calories) to help you be healthy. When people who shouldn’t eat foods with gluten in them do, their bodies will not be able to use the nutrients as they should.
- Common gluten-free grains include rice, corn (maize), soy, potatoes, beans, quinoa (KEEN-wah), tapioca, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, flax, chia seeds, teff, nut flours and gluten-free oats. Despite the name “buckwheat”, there is no wheat or gluten found in buckwheat and instead it is actually a relative to rhubarb.
- Other gluten-free foods include fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and eggs.
- It isn’t always clear which foods have gluten in them. It can be very challenging to try to eat only foods that are gluten-free. People who have to eat this way get very good at reading nutrition fact labels to see if a food is gluten-free or not.
- People who have food allergies, sensitivities or other restrictions often have to deal with people not understanding their situation. Sometimes other people can be unkind about it, or put their friends at risk by not being careful.
Give some background on gluten and gluten-free foods.
- Show the youth grains that have gluten: wheat, rye, barley.
- Show the youth examples of grains that do not have gluten, such as rice, quinoa, corn and others listed above.
- Show the youth how on MyPlate the gluten-free grains fit into the same orange section as the grains with gluten.
Activity: Gluten-free Foods on MyPlate
Go to MyPlate. Click on each food group, one at a time, to explore which foods are gluten-free. Within each food group, click on “View Food Gallery” and click through the slideshow to have the young people guess which of the foods are gluten-free.
- Fruit: All gluten-free.
- Vegetables: All gluten-free.
- Grains: Brown rice, popcorn and white rice are gluten-free. (Note: Many cereals have other things added to them that have gluten even if they are made from corn. Cornbread is only gluten-free if it is made in a special way without regular flour.)
- Protein: All fresh cuts of meat, nuts and seeds and beans are gluten free. (Note: Deli meat is usually not gluten-free unless it is made especially for people who cannot eat gluten. The gluten-free deli meats will be labeled “gluten-free.”
- Dairy: Milk, soymilk and cheese are gluten-free. (Note: Yogurt, pudding and frozen yogurt may all have gluten in them because of added flavorings. Always check the label to see if a product is gluten-free.)
- Oils: All oils are gluten-free as long as the one type of oil is the only ingredient in the ingredient list.
- Special consideration: Even though potatoes are naturally gluten free, when you deep fry them to make French Fries they can be cross contaminated with other gluten foods that were fried in the same oil.
Activity: Gluten-free Birthday Party
- Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of someone who needs to avoid gluten. We are going to act out a story about a birthday party. A boy named Logan has celiac disease and needs to avoid eating gluten. All of his friends can eat foods with gluten, including the tasty birthday cake. As you are acting out the story, remember how hard it would be for someone like Logan to not be able to eat the same food as his friends.
- Read the following story out loud: Logan has celiac disease. On Friday night, he goes to his friend Andrew’s birthday party. A birthday cake made with wheat flour is served, but there is also a special cupcake for Logan. Some of the other friends tease Logan and are rude. They seem to be jealous about the special treatment. Alex stands up for his friend Logan and helps explain that celiac is a serious disease.
- Break the youth up into small groups to act out the story. Walk around and offer ideas for what Alex could say when he stands up for Logan. If young people need prompting in how to address the topic in a positive way, Alex could respond that he wanted everyone to feel special at the birthday party without excluding anybody for any reason. The gluten-free cupcake was just one consideration of the needs of the friends invited to the party.
- Then ask for a few volunteers or one small group to act out their storyline to the entire group. Discuss.
Activity: Word Find
Pass out the Gluten Word Find and instruct young people to find all 18 foods that contain gluten. The answers can be found on the Gluten Word Find Answer Key.
Remind young people that it can be very challenging to try to eat only foods that are gluten-free. Ask the youth to pay attention to nutrition labels and notice how many of the things they eat contain gluten. If they have a classmate or friend who can’t eat gluten, think of ways they help that person from being left out when food or treats are given out at special events.
Continuing the Conversation
Hand out the Healthy Families Newsletter in English or Spanish, so that families can practice spotting gluten in their meals at home.
Related Health Powered Kids Blog(s)
The dish on gluten
What you need to know about food allergies
Food Allergy Awareness for the School Year
Additional Instructor Resources
Does My Child Need a Gluten-Free Diet?