Can a Gluten-Free Diet Increase Your Risk for Diabetes?

Can a Gluten-Free Diet Increase Your Risk for Diabetes?

A recent study indicates that adopting a gluten-free diet may not help you be healthier. The research, which included more than 30 years of data, found that those with less gluten in their diets actually had a slightly higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes over a few decades.

Greg Zong, a nutrition research fellow at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, recognized the belief that gluten-free diets are healthier and wanted to see if this belief might have merit. Zong’s team of researchers conducted studies every two to four years in which nearly 200,000 people reported what they ate. Over the 30-year study period, nearly 16,000 of the participants had developed type 2 diabetes.

The people who ate the most gluten — 12 grams per day — had a 13 percent lower risk of developing diabetes.

What is gluten?

It’s a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and foods that contain these grains. People with Celiac Disease will have serious health problems if they continue to eat foods containing gluten.

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune illness that affects the small intestine; when people who have it eat gluten, their immune system responds by attacking the gut’s lining. If they continue to eat gluten they’ll end up with multiple nutritional deficiencies that will impact their health. Their intestines simply can’t absorb the nutrients they eat.

People who suffer from gluten intolerance have severe symptoms that include cramping, gas, and bloating. No damage to the intestines is seen but the symptoms may be intolerable. They most often can eat some gluten but must limit quantities in order to avoid the symptoms. Gluten intolerance doesn’t cause nutritional deficiencies.

If you suspect you have celiac disease, don’t stop eating gluten — because once you stop consuming gluten the gut will heal and the doctor will be unable to diagnosis the disease. Once you’re diagnosed, you can start restricting your diet. If you’re diagnosed with celiac disease, a registered dietitian can assist you with information and menu planning.

RELATED: Learn more about eating gluten-free

Type 2 diabetes — which used to be known as adult-onset diabetes — is one of the major health concerns I have for my patients. I also know many people are trying to make healthier lifestyle choices and many people believe gluten-free diets are healthier than those that include gluten.

Before you try a gluten-free diet…

First, there’s no evidence that a gluten-free diet benefits anyone but those with celiac disease and those who are gluten intolerant. Gluten-free diets haven’t been proven to aid in weight loss or protect against diabetes.

Second, gluten-free diets aren’t healthier and don’t contain more or better nutrients. Many gluten-free products contain extra additives to make them palatable. This dilutes the nutrition content even if the major flour used is whole grain. If the grain uses refined non-gluten flours or if you decide to eliminate grains from your diet entirely, a whole food group and the nutrients specific to that group have disappeared from your diet. This omission can increase your disease risk in the long run.

The link between gluten consumption and the risk of diabetes is not yet understood. One possible explanation is that those who consume more gluten eat a diet that’s higher in natural grain fiber and the nutrition those whole grains contain, which may help lower their diabetes risk. Future studies will make the relationship between gluten and diabetes clearer.

How to prevent type 2 diabetes

Eat a healthy, balanced diet. A healthy diet is key to preventing diabetes. It's best to stick to the basics. Start with “My Plate.” By using the visual of a plate, it’s easier to understand that each food group (whole grains, vegetables/fruits, and healthy proteins) needs to be eaten at every meal. Make sure to include whole grains. Eliminate white or refined grains. Multiple studies show that whole grains protect us from disease and provide important energy. A healthy diet is all about balance.

Eat regular, consistent meals. Eat breakfast within an hour of getting up, eat until you’re no longer hungry, and eat again when you’re hungry – regardless of how long it’s been since your last meal. Also, your evening meal shouldn’t be the largest meal of the day. It should be the smallest meal of the day and the last thing you eat before retiring to bed.

LEARN MORE: The Diabetic Diet: Food Is Not the Enemy

Stay at a healthy weight. If you eat healthy and exercise, in most cases, your weight will naturally take care of itself. Remember a healthy weight is going to look different for everyone. Work with your caregiver to determine what weight is healthiest for you.

Get adequate sleep. I cannot overemphasize the importance of sleep, which we, as Americans don’t do all that well. With our busy schedules, sleep is the one thing we tend to sacrifice, and our poor sleep habits are doing more damage than we realize. Make time for some shut-eye.

LEARN MORE: 5 Ways to Get More Sleep

Be active. Make it a daily habit. It doesn’t matter what you do or where you begin — but do begin.

LEARN MORE: A Healthy Heart Starts with an Active Lifestyle

Work with your caregiver. We want to help you develop the tools you need to be the healthiest you can be.