Expert Advice

Too much gluten in pregnancy linked to increased risk of diabetes for babies

Should you put down the bread?

By Rebel Wylie

A diet high in gluten during pregnancy appears to link to an increased chance of that mother's child developing type 1 diabetes according to new research out of Denmark.

Gluten is the general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, and barley, and it's often the carbohydrates in those same foods that pregnant women are craving, so should we be worried?

Fertility and Prenatal Dietitian, Melanie McGrice says it's best not to change your diet at this point.
Fertility and Prenatal Dietitian, Melanie McGrice says it's best not to change your diet at this point.

The study, which looked at over 67,000 pregnant women in Denmark suggests that pregnant women who eat 20g or more of gluten a day are twice as likely to have a child with type 1 diabetes than women who eat less than 7g of gluten a day.

Type 1 diabetes, once known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes is a serious autoimmune condition where insulin is not produced by the pancreas. Insulin is the hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. If untreated, high blood glucose can result in problems including permanent damage to the heart and eyes.

Dr Knud Josefsen, co-author of the research from the Bartholin Institute in Copenhagen, said at this stage pregnant mothers should not be too concerned with the findings from the observational study.

"At present we don't recommend any changes in pregnant women's diets," he said.

Research showed that pregnant women who eat 20g or more gluten a day are twice as likely to have a child with type 1 diabetes than women who eat less than 7g of gluten a day.
Research showed that pregnant women who eat 20g or more gluten a day are twice as likely to have a child with type 1 diabetes than women who eat less than 7g of gluten a day.

Fertility and pre-natal dietician, Melanie McGrice agrees, noting that gluten has many benefits that should not be ignored.

"During pregnancy a lot of women crave carbohydrates, and that's fine, they should continue to eat breads, pasta, couscous and crackers," she says.

"Wheat is good for gut microbiomes, and research has proven there is a strong case for women including allergens such as gluten, nuts and dairy in their diet to help reduce their child's intolerance down the track."

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To collect the data, women in the study were asked to track their diet for the four weeks from 21 weeks gestation. Researchers also took into consideration data on various other aspects of the women's health and lifestyle, as well as factors such as breastfeeding.

The results suggest that the higher a pregnant women's gluten intake, the more likely their child is to develop type 1 diabetes. However with only 247 children overall developing type 1 diabetes, firm conclusions were difficult to draw and it is clear more research needs to be conducted.

McGrice suggests that when it comes to this new information, it is best not to panic.

"Do still keep gluten in your diet," she says. "There are many known benefits and the results of this new research don't yet warrant any significant changes take place."

Melanie McGrice’s 5 dietary tips for pregnancy:

  • Drink more water – your fluid stores increase by 150 percent during pregnancy, so not drinking enough can lead to constipation, nausea or headaches
  • Include a variety of different grains – many women crave more carbs during pregnancy, but try to include a variety of different grains, such as freekeh, brown rice, pasta and lentils, to moderate your gluten load
  • Check your vitamin D levels – research suggests that there might be a link between low vitamin D intake and an increased risk of type 1 diabetes
  • Include plenty of vegetables in your diet – a healthy gut microbiome has also been found to decrease the risk of type 1 diabetes, and vegies are one of the best foods for promoting levels of good bacteria
  • Plan your meals – without a plan, you'll struggle to get in all of the nutrients that your body needs, and will be more tempted to turn to take away