Behind the headlines – gluten in pregnancy and type 1 diabetes

Posted on 20 September 2018

Pregnant woman

Today, a number of outlets reported that eating gluten during pregnancy is linked to type 1 diabetes in children. Here we unpick the research behind these headlines, and explain why there’s no need to avoid gluten.

What was the study?

Gluten is a protein found in foods made with wheat or barley, such as bread and pasta.

Researchers wanted to investigate if mothers eating gluten during pregnancy was linked to type 1 diabetes in their children.

Danish women who were pregnant between 1996 and 2002 were given a questionnaire about their food intake 25 weeks into their pregnancies. The researchers used this information to estimate how much gluten they were eating.

The team then compared these findings with later medical records to see which of the children went on to develop type 1 diabetes.

The researchers excluded pregnant women known to have type 1 diabetes from the study, so that genetic factors would not affect the results.

What did they find?

247 children out of the 67,565 studied went on to develop type 1 diabetes. This is in line with expected rates of new diagnoses in a Western population.

Children were twice as likely to develop type 1 diabetes if their mothers had eaten higher levels of gluten during pregnancy, compared with children whose mothers ate low levels of gluten.

The researchers defined higher levels of gluten as over 20 g a day, which is roughly equivalent to eight slices of bread. Low gluten was defined as under 7 g a day, which is about three slices of bread.

What we don’t know

In their paper, the researchers say that we do not have enough evidence at this stage to conclude that eating gluten in pregnancy leads to type 1 diabetes in children. It may be that gluten and type 1 diabetes are linked through another, unknown factor.

In addition, two previous studies have not found a link between gluten in pregnancy and type 1 diabetes.

More research is needed to investigate the relationship between gluten and type 1 diabetes further, but dietary guidelines for pregnancy will remain unchanged for now.

Rachel Connor, Director of Research Partnerships at JDRF in the UK, said:

“Certain genetic factors put people at higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Despite many myths and misunderstandings around the condition, there is currently no known way to avoid it or to help your children avoid it.

That remains the case following this study. As the researchers state, further research is needed and this study does not alter dietary recommendations for pregnancy.”

JDRF Pregnancy Toolkit front cover

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