Eating Gluten in Pregnancy Linked to Diabetes Risk in Children

Patient Expert

Gluten is a mixture of proteins — found in wheat and some grains — that is added to foods to make the dough more elastic or chewy. Gluten is also an ingredient in many sauces, gravies, salad dressings, and processed foods.

Eating “gluten-free” has become a controversial health trend, but for some people, there are valid reasons to avoid gluten. For example, celiac disease – an autoimmune condition that makes it impossible to digest gluten and affects one in every 141 people in the United States – requires a gluten-free diet to avoid damage to organs. Those who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity reduce their inflammation and symptoms when following a gluten-free diet.

We already know that going gluten-free during pregnancy may reduce a baby’s risk of developing celiac disease.

Now, research has found that the more gluten consumed by a pregnant woman, the higher the risk of type 1 diabetes – the autoimmune form of diabetes sometimes called “juvenile diabetes” – in her child. What is gluten, and is it safe to cut it out of your diet during pregnancy? Let’s explore the issue.

The gluten-type 1 diabetes connection

The study, conducted in Denmark, and published in 2018 in the British Medical Journal, evaluated the gluten intake of almost 70,000 pregnant women and followed up on their children’s rate of type 1 diabetes over more than 15 years.

The study found:

  • The average gluten intake of the pregnant women studied was 13 grams per day. The intake ranged from less than 7 grams per day to more than 20 grams per day.

  • The women with the highest gluten intake (above 20 grams per day) had double the rate of type 1 diabetes in their children, compared to the women consuming the lowest level of gluten, at less than 7 grams per day.

  • The risk of type 1 diabetes in the children increased as gluten intake in pregnant women rose.

Should you go gluten-free during pregnancy?

It’s worth exploring the benefits of a gluten-free pregnancy with your health care provider if you have any of the following factors that raise your child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes:

  • You have a personal or family history of autoimmune disease
  • You have been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes or celiac disease
  • You have non-celiac gluten sensitivity

There is no downside to going gluten-free during pregnancy, as long as you find other food sources for the fiber, and vitamins and minerals – such as B vitamins, iron, and iodine — that are usually obtained from grains. The “What to Expect” site in more detail how to ensure a healthy gluten-free diet during pregnancy. You should also discuss your nutritional plan with your obstetrician, midwife, or health care provider.

How to eat gluten-free

How do you follow a gluten-free diet? First, you need to avoid all wheat products, including bread, cereals, pasta, crackers, tortillas, cakes, cookies, and other baked goods made from wheat flour. You’ll also need to avoid any foods that include wheat derivatives and grain varieties such as wheatberries, durum, semolina, spelt, farina, and faro.

Other foods that contain gluten include:

  • Anything with malt, malt flavoring, or malt extract
  • Brewer's yeast
  • Beer and malt beverages
  • Soy sauce
  • Some soups, especially cream-based soups

Many sauces, gravies, salad dressings, seasonings, and processed foods also contain gluten or ingredients that include gluten. Make sure to read ingredients labels carefully.

Going gluten-free during pregnancy

You don’t have to cut out all grains on a gluten-free diet. Grains such as sorghum, millet, brown rice, buckwheat, wild rice, amaranth, quinoa, corn (polenta), and oats are free of gluten, unless they are contaminated by exposure to gluten during processing.

To get you started, check out Gluten-Free Living’s Basic Gluten-Free Diet page.

The Celiac Disease Foundation's (CDF) "What Can I Eat?" page also features a list of foods that you can eat on a gluten-free diet, including:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Dairy
  • Beans, legumes, and nuts

The CDF also has a basic 7-Day Gluten-Free Meal Plan and Gluten-Free Recipes database.

Many people find it helpful to pick up a reference book. A great choice is The Whole Pregnancy: A Complete Nutrition Plan for Gluten-Free Moms to Be.

Finally, here at HealthCentral, you will find the following resources useful for incorporating a gluten-free diet into your pregnancy:

See more helpful articles:

Gluten-Free Articles at HealthCentral

Understanding Autoimmune Disease

The Link Between Thyroid Disease and Gluten