AUSTIN -- For children to grow up healthy and strong, they need important nutrients in food. One disease associated with gluten prevents that, and it's sparking research to provide critical answers for parents.
Stephanie Howard can't help but beam with pride when she looks at her nine-year-old daughter Stella. She was diagnosed with celiac disease when she was two. Stephanie had never heard of the illness.
"What do you mean it's an auto immune disease?" she said. "What do you mean it's genetic?"
Celiac disease damages the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food vital to staying healthy. Gluten that is found in wheat, barley, and rye causes that damage.
After talking to doctors and nutritionists, Stephanie and her husband removed gluten from Stella's diet.
"We have found that within the first week of actually changing her diet she was a totally different child," said Stephanie. "She went from having no energy and being very lethargic, to having a lot of energy and being a typical two-and-a-half-year-old."
Stella noticed too.
"Some people don't feel good inside, and I can," said Stella. "I know I won't get sick from the food that I'm eating."
Pediatrician Ava Gallagher says even though celiac disease is genetic, not everyone with those genes gets it. Researchers are studying when the best time is for parents to give their children food with gluten.
"There seems to be a time interval, and age interval, between four to six months where if you introduce gluten-containing foods, you may actually reduce the risk of developing celiac disease," said Gallagher.
Gallagher says it's not yet proven whether that truly reduces the risk or just delays the onset. As for Stephanie, she says her daughter is proof the gluten battle can be won.
"She's stepped up and really looked at this as a gift," she said. "It's something she can share with others and help other children and other parents realize it's OK."
Many children and adults also suffer from gluten intolerance. While it is still serious, it's a condition, not a disease.
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