Too Little Gluten May Increase Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

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Consuming more gluten may help you avoid type 2 diabetes, suggests a new study from Harvard University researchers.

Assessing the long-term health of nearly 200,000 study participants over a 30-year period, researchers found that people who ate higher quantities of gluten-containing foods — such as pasta, cereals and breads — had a reduced risk of developing diabetes.

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Researchers believe that people with celiac disease or others who limit their intake of foods containing gluten also may be depriving themselves of cereal fiber, which they call a “protective factor” for avoiding type 2 diabetes, and other essential dietary elements.

“Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fiber and other micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals), making them less nutritious, and they also tend to cost more,” said Dr. Geng Zong, a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Related: Gluten-Free Dieters May Have Unsafe Levels of Arsenic, Mercury

People with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects about one out of every 100 people worldwide, suffer from damage to the small intestine if they ingest gluten, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. However, many others have cut gluten from their diets as a way to improve their general health and well-being.

The researchers caution that striking gluten entirely comes with a catch.

“People without celiac disease may reconsider limiting their gluten intake for chronic disease prevention, especially for diabetes,” said Zong.

A Closer Look at the Data

Researchers tracked the health trends of 199,794 people from 1984 to 2013. They found a total of 15,947 cases of type 2 diabetes.

Looking at dietary trends, the researchers found that most people ate less than 12 grams of gluten per day — but they discovered that those who ate gluten at the upper end of that spectrum had a lower risk of developing diabetes.

Overall, they found that the top 20 percent of gluten consumers had a 13 percent reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to the group that ate the least amount of gluten, or less than four grams per day. Average gluten consumption was about six-and-a-half grams per day.

Credit: Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The new study adds to a list of research that throws caution on the gluten-free diet trend. A previous study found that gluten-free dieters had high levels of arsenic and mercury in their bodies compared to people on a regular diet. The author of that study called the high metal content an “unintended consequence of eating a gluten-free diet.”

A protein found in wheat, rye and barley, gluten is common in breads, cereals, crackers, cakes, pies and other flour-based items. The researchers note that gluten-free diets have become popular among people who aren’t afflicted with a disease, but they add that “there is a lack of evidence that reducing gluten consumption benefits long-term health.”

Many grain-based products are offered in gluten-free styles, and a typical diet is not necessarily bereft of bread — take a look at a sample diet from the Celiac Disease Foundation.

Related: Burnt Toast Can Lead to Cancer, Experts Warn

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
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