Gluten Free Doesn’t Mean Diabetes Free

African American couple eating breakfastWe live in the land of the free – sugar-free, salt-free, dairy-free, fat-free, wheat-free and yes gluten-free—all in the pursuit of good health. But are these “freedoms” doing more harm than good? When it comes to gluten-free, that might very well be the case.

The gluten-free diet is not new. Historically, a gluten-free diet was used to manage a rare immune condition called celiac disease. If you have celiac disease and eat foods with gluten, your immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. The damage to the small intestine prevents the body from absorbing needed nutrients and can lead to malnutrition, depression, anxiety, anemia, or weakened bones. In children, it can delay growth.

People with type 1 diabetes, which is also an autoimmune disease, are at increased risk for celiac disease. Approximately 10% of people with type 1 diabetes have celiac disease compared to only 1 % of the total population. That’s because people with one autoimmune disease are at increased risk for other autoimmune diseases. Celiac disease is also more common in Caucasians and more often diagnosed in females. If someone in your family has celiac disease you are also more likely to develop the disease. Type 2 diabetes has a genetic component, but the genes are not associated with celiac disease.

Should You Consider Going Gluten-Free?

There are two other gluten-related disorders—wheat allergy and nonceliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) that require the avoidance of gluten. In wheat allergy, your body’s immune system reacts to wheat. However, the symptoms are very different—itchy eyes or difficulty breathing, but there is no long-term damage to the small intestine. Symptoms of NCGS include tiredness, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, muscle cramps and leg numbness. Nonceliac gluten sensitivity also does not damage the small intestine.