For some individuals, there are health reasons to avoid gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. Certain people, for example, have an intolerance to gluten, which can lead to abdominal pain, bloating or fatigue. Others have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects mostly the small intestine; when people with this disease eat gluten, their immune system responds by attacking the intestine's lining.
However, even some people who do not have celiac disease or an intolerance to gluten believe that gluten-free diets are healthier than those that include gluten products, and the researchers wanted to see whether this belief might have any scientific merit, said lead study author Geng Zong, a nutrition research fellow at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
In the study, the researchers looked at surveys conducted every two to four years in which nearly 200,000 people reported what they ate. The researchers estimated the participants' gluten intake based on this information, and then looked at which participants went on to develop Type 2 diabetes over the 30-year study period. Type 2 — the most common form of diabetes — occurs when the body has lost the ability to use insulin efficiently. This inability leads to high blood sugar levels, which can damage blood vessel walls, nerves and other tissues.
The researchers focused on studying the participants’ risk of diabetes because this condition is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, Zong said.
By the end of the study, nearly 16,000 particIpants had developed Type 2 diabetes. The researchers found that those who ate the most gluten had a 13 percent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes during the study period than the people who ate the least gluten.
These findings suggest that there might be a link between gluten consumption and risk of diabetes, the researchers said. However, it is not clear why the people who ate more gluten were less likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes than those who ate less gluten, the researchers said.
One possible explanation is that the people who consumed more gluten also ate more fiber, which, as previous research has suggested, may help to lower a person’s diabetes risk. However, more research is needed to examine the relationship between gluten consumption and diabetes, the researchers said.