No, A Gluten-Free Diet Didn’t (Quite) Kill a Baby.

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Recently an article ran in the DailyMail declaring that a malnourished 7 month old baby died after his “parents fed him a gluten-free diet.” 

Quickly, what does this imply to you? Does this imply that it was the lack of bread and pasta that killed the infant? Because I assure you, this is not quite the case.

Because yes, it appears that dietary insanity was the cause of death of the child. The parents, who own a health food store, self-diagnosed their child as having lactose and gluten intolerance. Instead of seeking out formulas with proper sources of proteins and fats, they tried feeding the baby all of the readily available non-dairy milks that they had at their store. These milks do not have sufficient calories to feed a growing infant. In most cases, they have fewer calories than plain dairy milk. This is a problem as growing babies need a lot of goddamn calories for their size. The parents were quoted in the article as saying “sometimes he gained a little weight, sometimes he lost a little.” That’s not how babies are supposed to work. 

Alarmingly, they also tried to feed the child semolina milk (a product I haven’t seen in the US but was listed in the article). Semolina is a type of wheat. If the child legitimately had symptoms of celiac disease, they were still feeding their child gluten. 

Know what killed this baby? Two things. When they did see a problem- which at one point the parents claimed they didn’t, which is clearly bullshit- they brought the child across the country to a homeopathic doctor. I’m guessing homeopathic doctors, much like not knowing how real medicine works, didn’t suggest real treatment or real food. I’ve talked about homeopathy once or twice already, please click the links to find my thoughts on that. Whatever questionable level of training this person had in anatomy, if this child had an actual absorption issue or any actual digestive problems, the homeopathic doctor was not going to prescribe any real medicine. It’s all sugar pills, so I’m guessing a homeopathic doctor didn’t suggest anything that worked.

If you’re pro-homeopathy and want to argue that point, I would like to refer to exhibit A: dead baby. 

The other thing that killed this child? A lack of fucking calories. No matter what this doctor told them or what they self-diagnosed, it wasn’t a lack of gluten or even the stupid ‘quinoa milk’ that killed him. It was a severe lack of calories, probably through the fact that the milks they were feeding him were not very calorie dense. Furthermore, the autopsy found an empty stomach and, bizarrely, a prayer card in the child’s diaper. 

They didn’t figure out that food goes in the stomach but they had time for Jesus in the diaper. I’m more than mildly disturbed by this.

Moving swiftly onward, the presence or absence of gluten in his diet is symptomatic of this particular trend in food phobia, but the gluten-free aspect of the diet had nothing to do with the death of the child. You can buy gluten free, lactose free, organic baby formula that will get proper amounts of calories to your child if they medically need to avoid gluten and lactose (but for the record, nobody medically needs it to be organic). Notice that the article did not focus on the fact that they also kept their child on a lactose free diet, and neither did any of the other articles that covered it. Gluten is a hot button issue right now in media, health, and food discussions, so of course the writers kinda framed it as “those stupid hippies cut gluten and their kid died.” 

Why did nobody frame it as “they didn’t feed their kid enough calories, bring their kid to the proper doctors for health screenings, and their child died?” The framing is around gluten, and it’s going to perpetuate bad information about science.  

 

What happens when the next parent has a kid diagnosed with celiac disease and the mommy-shamers who read this article descend to let you know they read that a gluten free diet killed a kid? Or everyone who read that gluten free diets are actually bad for you starts lecturing the guy with celiac disease because he read a thing on the internet? 

The framing of information matters. 

And here’s the perfect shitstorm of a problem that science journalism created and can’t kill. The media picked up on one small study suggesting that non-celiac gluten sensitivity was real, and it became a huge trend. Now every blogger on the planet has their own version of why gluten is the devil and they have an industry wrapped up around why gluten is bad. Newer, better science disproving the old theory about gluten from the same scientist came out but it wasn’t good enough to get rid of the sensationalist gluten-free industry given that there’s a lot of money to be made off the marketing of gluten free products and the clickbait headlines talking about gluten. And because of all the misinformation about gluten, there are tons of people avoiding bread, spending stupid amounts of money on pastries that fall apart when you breathe on them, and putting their children on misguided and dangerous diets out of fear. The parents whose child died got their information from a media that irresponsibly ran with unverified clickbait about how gluten was bad for you. The same media now, instead of focusing on the parents being religious nut jobs or going to a homeopathic doctor, is focusing on the gluten free diet because it tells a better story that they constructed.

Don’t get me wrong, the parents are absolutely responsible for the health of their child no matter what they read online, but does this make it clear how responsibly we have to act when we write about science?

The media spawned an industry from one bad study,  and responsible science journalists would love it to die and can’t kill it. Both the stupidity of people who buy into the trend AND the people who allegedly heal their hard to heal medical conditions by just cutting out gluten (hint: that’s not a thing that happens) are a boon for headlines, and it all could have been stopped if people did their due diligence before reporting on a study. But it’s just so goddamn much more fun to scare the shit out of people with new studies. 

Could we start treating gluten and celiac disease more like we treat, for example, an egg allergy? Nobody wants an egg allergy. Egg is a common ingredient in a lot of baked goods and it makes eating out really difficult because you don’t know what it’s mixed into. Also, nobody questions when you say “I have an egg allergy,” because they just assume that you mean “I will have a terrible reaction and I will need some sort of medication.” However, if you do not have an allergy to egg, feel free to eat eggs in moderation like any other food. Ditto peanuts, wheat, shellfish, or any other common allergen.

Celiac disease is an immune response, not an allergy (slight difference), but if you don’t have celiac disease you can feel free to enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with eating it just because someone else has an issue with it. Articles like these that frame the problem with a child’s diet as “gluten free” are an issue in science journalism, and contribute to misinformation. Please, keep this in mind when you see a clickbait headline about a gluten free diet either helping or healing someone. At this point in our knowledge of science and diseases, a gluten-free diet can manage celiac disease, and that’s about it. The lack of gluten in this child’s diet was not the cause of death. The lack of overall food and medical care was. And as science writers and journalists, we need to cover stories like this more ethically. 

Cause of death: suspected malnutrition.  How hard was that?

Demand better from science journalism, even from a paper that Piers Morgan works at. 

 

-SciBabe.

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