Avoiding gluten may increase diabetes risk

American study adds fuel to the gluten controversy


It is absolutely necessary for anyone with genuine intolerances or conditions like coeliac disease to avoid gluten but in recent years ‘gluten-free’ diets have become associated with a healthier lifestyle and a way to avoid processed foods.

Many nutritionists have weighed in on both sides of the argument leaving the public confused and uncertain while the health industry, never one to miss an opportunity, has produced increasing numbers of expensive gluten-free products which can now be found in every supermarket.

We’ve been told we’ll all feel healthier and look slimmer if we go gluten-free, and so many people with no real intolerance at all have shunned gluten, which is found in various grains including wheat, rye, barley and spelt.

A new study by the American Heart Association adds a very serious note of caution by revealing that researchers from Harvard University have found a link between gluten-free diets and type 2 diabetes. 

Those who shun grains through choice rather than medical necessity could be doing more harm than good, the researchers warned. 

The results are particularly noteworthy because of the study’s size and scale - the gluten intake of 200,000 people was estimated over 30 years.

The long-term observational study found that the 20 per cent of participants who consumed the most gluten had a 13 per cent lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least.

This suggests that consuming gluten could actually lower the risk of developing diabetes according to the study’s leader Geng Zong from Harvard's Department of Nutrition.

He warned against eating gluten-free versions of foods that would naturally contain gluten, like bread, pasta and crackers: “Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fibre and other micronutrients... making them less nutritious.

People without coeliac disease may reconsider limiting their gluten intake for chronic disease prevention, especially for diabetes.”

The proportion of the population whose bodies genuinely cannot stomach gluten is actually very small, so it could be that people who are perfectly tolerant of gluten are unknowingly increasing their risk of diabetes by avoiding it.

However it’s not clear whether it was actually the gluten that resulted in a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, or other nutrients usually often found alongside the protein.

It could be that other elements that tend to be associated with gluten, like wholegrains, are driving the reduction in risk of diabetes. It’s also worth noting that when the study commenced over 30 years ago, avoiding gluten was not the trendy lifestyle choice it is now.


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