A new report indicates that a child’s gluten intake during early life might increase the risk of that child developing type 1 diabetes. The research, presented at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), stated that a child’s intake of gluten at age 18 months was linked to a 46% higher risk of type 1 diabetes. The researchers, however, did not find that a mother’s consumption of gluten during pregnancy increased the diabetes risk.
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The authors of the study collected data from the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study on over 86,000 children who were born between 1999 and 2009 and then followed up until 2018. By means of food questionnaires administered during the 22nd week of pregnancy and when the children were 18 months old, the researchers estimated the amount of gluten intake by both mothers and infants.
The average gluten intake for the pregnant mothers was 13.6 grams per day (about half an ounce); for the children at 18 months it was 8.6 grams per day. The main sources of gluten in the diet were cereal and bread. During the follow-up period, 346 children developed type 1 diabetes. Although gluten intake during pregnancy was not found to affect the development of diabetes in the infants, the researchers reported that the risk of diabetes in the young children rose 46% for each 10 grams per day increase in gluten intake. As the researchers stated in their conclusion, “This study suggests that the child’s gluten intake at 18 months of age, and not the maternal intake during pregnancy, could increase the risk of type 1 diabetes in the child.”
Why might gluten intake increase diabetes risk? The researchers said that “the exact mechanism… is not known,” but they pointed out that “There is some evidence that gluten intake may influence the gut microbiota and induce inflammation in so-called ‘leaky gut’.” They said that further interventional studies—ideally, a randomized controlled trial—will need to be done to confirm their findings. Until then, they said, their study is not sufficient to promote an avoidance or a reduction of gluten intake. They added that even if their research is confirmed, it might be that “simply reducing gluten intake would be enough to reduce risk and this is easier to achieve than complete avoidance…. Complete avoidance of gluten is hard but manageable, but this would probably not be necessary.”
A freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area, Gustaitis has a degree in journalism from Columbia University.