Wheat . . . and type 1 diabetes

There seems to be some confusion about whether wheat is associated with type 1 diabetes, i.e., the form that generally occurs in children consequent to destruction of insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells. This is not to be confused with the contribution wheat makes to type 2 diabetes, the type that generally afflicts adults, though it is indeed now occurring in children, as well.

There are several lines of evidence that suggest—not prove, but suggest—that some component(s) of wheat induce the changes that lead to type 1 diabetes in genetically-susceptible people, both children and adults. (This is summarized on pages 112-113 of the Wheat Belly book, but much of the skepticism over this argument, as always, comes from people who have not read the book.)

–Children with celiac disease are 10-fold more likely to develop type 1 diabetes than children without celiac disease (Hansen 2001).
–Children with type 1 diabetes are 10- to 20-fold more likely to develop celiac disease and/or antibodies to wheat components (Barera 2002).
–The experimental mouse and rat models for type 1 diabetes demonstrate a connection to wheat. One study, for instance, showed that 64% of mice fed wheat-containing chow develop type 1 diabetes, compared to 15% of mice fed non-wheat-containing chow that develop type 1 diabetes (Funda 1999).
–Children with type 1 diabetes have 24-29% likelihood of autoantibodies, i.e., antibodies against
“self” proteins, compared to 6% in children without type 1 diabetes (Barker 2006 and others). Wheat gliadin and lectins have been implicated in generating increased intestinal damage and permeability that can lead to increased autoantibody expression (Visser 2009). Admittedly, this is correlation, not necessarily causation. But the closer we look, the worse it gets.

Concerningly, the NIH/CDC-sponsored SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth Study has documented that, starting in 1978, the incidence of type 1 diabetes has been increasing 2.7% per year (Vehik 2007). This phenomenon is not confined to the U.S., but has been demonstrated in registries in other countries, as well. Note that, since 1978, humans have not really changed . . . but the wheat has. Specifically, wheat gliadin, glutens, and lectins have changed, the three most important and potentially immunogenic (immune-stimulating) components of modern wheat.

What we don’t have is a trial in humans, half of whom eat wheat starting at birth, half of whom avoid wheat from birth. You can imagine the difficulties in conducting such a trial. So don’t hold your breath waiting for these data.

So how incriminating does something have to be before we take action? Note that type 1 diabetes is a life-long diagnosis that can only be managed with present technology, not cured. In my book, we have such overwhelmingly damning evidence against wheat in so many spheres of health that this simply provides one more reason, in this case an argument to avoid in newborns, infants, and children.

This is yet another potential “nail in the coffin” for wheat, i.e., an association so bad that, if substantiated, will add to wheat’s downward spiral.

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Comments & Feedback...

  1. Ellie

    Dr. Davis, as you were researching, did you come across information pertaining to the possible role of bromine having been added to the food supply (in flour), in thyroid problems? I’m interested in all angles of why wheat might be bad for us today — or, rather, why it might be worse for us today than it might have been 30 or 50 years ago.

    • My understanding of bromine use, Ellie, is that it is rarely used anymore, though it was used previously quite widely.

      Believe it or not, I think that the problems with wheat have only been touched upon in Wheat Belly, and that the problems lie even deeper and with even greater implications than I suggested.

    • Sharon

      I have felt so much better since wheat has been eliminated from my diet. I did slip at Christmas and eat a gingerbread cookie and really suffered with that. There is a lot of research how gluten affects the thyroid. Go to http://www.thryroidbook.com and there is so much information. I have also read about the GAPS diet which is interesting. She talks about the gut and the immune system. She has actually been able to get some Type I diabetic children off of insulin.

  2. ThatWriterChick

    What about expanding that study to include gestating mothers who abstain from wheat while pregnant vs. mothers who don’t; and maybe throw in another group who developed gestational diabetes for good measure? And lactating mothers who abstained/did not abstain from eating wheat in those who breastfeed? This is data I’d love to see from a lot of different angles, since the baby’s entire immune system is based on Mom’s.

    • It would indeed be enlightening. The difficulty: Getting dietary studies funded, getting an Institutional Review Board to okay such a study in pregnant mothers (very, very difficult).

      We could select only women with celiac or gluten sensitivity who are wheat- and gluten-free already. As more women embrace this notion, this may be the route to go.

    • Hi, Patrick–

      Sorry, it’s not something I’ve watched for.

      I can tell you that, with this dietary approach along with normalization of vitamin D, I have seen a number of males increase total testosterone, less consistently free testosterone, sometimes dramatically. But it seems to occur in only some guys.

      • Linda

        Dr. Davis, what is the best type of vitamin d to take? I’ve heard negatives about dry and that we should take it in the form of an oil? I’m a bit confused.

  3. Hi Dr. Davis,
    My sister has had type 1 since she was 13 years old. She was also diagnosed with Celiac Disease ~4 years ago. She has always been overweight, and dislikes (actually HATES) to exercise. Since her CD diagnoses, and after her pregnancy with her daughter, she has gained ~75-100 lbs. We are all so scarred for her and her future. I am, however, the complete opposite and always have been. I have always been tall and thin, very athletic and I live to eat healthy and exercise daily. Nutrition and fitness are my passions and my stress relievers; I even own a cardio-boxing fitness center her in WNY as well as blogging about wellness on my website.

    After listening to a podcast interview you did with Rob Wolf back in August, and reading your Wheat Belly book, I decided to go gluten free also. I have been GF since November 1st and feel SO much better. I talk to everyone I now about it and I am even giving a Wellness (fitness/nutrition) talk at a church wellness conference this Saturday. Ultimately, I am trying to find out everything I can to help my sister lose the weight and gain a healthy life… for her and her 5 year old daughter. She has started exercising recently, walking for an hour a day 3x a week with a friend, and we are really proud of her. She is even starting to feel an increase in her energy level, too.

    As I read and hear more about wheat, gluten, gliadin, etc… the more questions I seem to have. Recently, I have started to try and educate myself on glycemic index and how it works, etc…. And therefore, I am now trying to find more information about how to maintain a gluten free/ low GI diet. I really think that this type of diet may really help my sister. She is familiar with eating a low GI diet, as she has tried “EVERY” diet known to man, but she does not currently follow any nutrition plan, except being GF. Any info or advice you can offer is greatly appreciated.

    Thank you for being a leader in the fight against our Wheat Belly’s (and etc…) and helping all of us live a healthier life.

    • Hi, Amy–

      The type 1 diabetes/celiac combo is a frightening one. And it often includes, sooner or later, thyroid disease.

      What I would do in your sister’s shoes is be strictly wheat- and gluten-free, of course, eat NO gluten-free foods made with junk carbohydrates, and follow the nutritional advice as laid out in Wheat Belly. It means very close monitoring of blood sugars, since she has to use insulin, and does not want to chance hypoglycemia.

      Remember: We don’t want low-glycemic index foods. We want NO glycemic index foods.

    • dtnmommy

      Not to be a total downer, but you need to be careful with your sister if she’s not willing to change her diet. You can’t force her to eat a certain way, and the more you preach to her and tell her she should eat a certain way and exercise more the more likely she is to dig into her current lifestyle. Especially if you have always been the “thin one.” Trust me, fat people know they need to exercise and eat better. Offer help–make meals, buy her some of the books, watch her daughter so she can have time to take a walk, help her pay for a gym membership. Look at WHY she hasn’t changed her lifestyle and attack those things rather than preach. If you don’t live close enough to provide that help, join forces with someone who is. I know you mean well, but I’ve been on the other side of this and it feels awful to have your skinny sister tell you how to lose weight.

      Also, be aware that it can be VERY scary for someone with chornic health issues to go against the advice of their doctors.

      • Thank you for this advice. I agree 110% and I have tried not to be too pushy. I do not live close enough, unfortunately, and have done as much as I can by buying her books, sending her articles, etc…. I am always looking for others who are willing and able to help, even with just plain ole good advice like yours. Thank you again.

  4. Tyrannocaster

    And hot on the heels of all this new information comes the USDA with its just-released recommendations for our children’s “healthy” diet: “This rule requires most schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.” ( http://www.ofr.gov/OFRUpload/OFRData/2012-01010_PI.pdf )

    Yes, because if there’s one thing our kids lack, it’s access to wheat and other healthy grains. :-( The shilling for agribusiness by the USDA is appalling, but I have to remind myself that it’s only doing what it was established to do: promote the lobbies’ well being. That the USDA is even allowed near these guidelines is an incredible conflict of interest.

    • I always remind myself that, in many ways, the USDA is the advocacy group for agribusiness, not for the consumer.

      I’d like to see the mandate for the USDA and HHS to provide nutritional advice removed.

  5. Thank you for your reply, Dr. Davis.
    Yes, I agree that we all should aim for NO GI foods. I myself have always eaten this way (whole foods) but there are a few cereals, etc… That I was shocked to find out we’re VERY high on the GI chart. Being GF has made such a difference to how I feel… Everyone should feel this way and I hope with us being advocates and using your platform, we can make the significant changes needed to reverse the problem at hand.
    I will pass along your advice to my sister and help her as much as I can also. She has always had such a love/hate relationship with food (with a lifetime of cant eat this and cant eat that) and she mindlessly eats all day, too. It is going to be a long and difficult process, but I know she can do it. :). Thanks again.

    • Amy,

      If you’re sister is interested and/or willing, in addition to reading Wheat Belly, I highly recommend she read Primal Body, Primal Mind. I do not have diabetes, but I have had a lifelong weight problem and hatred of exercise. I exercise anyway, but I’ve never enjoyed it.

      Primal Body, Primal Mind is a great book and, I think it could help your sister to understand her own conditions better and learn how to improve her life. Nora Gedgaudas is the author, and she goes into a lot of information about insulin, leptin, the digestive process, and how all of these things impact our body and our mental state. As someone who also struggles with depression, I’m finding all of this information very refreshing.

      I also loved The Primal Blueprint 21 Day Total Body Transformation. That is the workout template I’ve been following and I like it so much more than what I’ve done in the past (the endless hours of cardio). The original Primal Blueprint is great too, but the 21 Day Transformation kind of boils it down to the key points so you can get started faster. Once I start getting new info, I am the type of person who does not want to wait to use it, so the shorter book is better for me.

      Maybe some of that can help. Wheat Belly is what lead me to the other books and got me started, so I definitely think Wheat Belly is a great starting point.

  6. Thank you, Nikki,

    I will take a look at these books and pass this info onto my sister. I already own the The Primal Blueprint 21 Day Total Body Transformation but have not put it into practice. Thanks again for your help and insight.

  7. Joan

    My son, age 11, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 4 months ago. I have been so frustrated dealing with the endocrinologist and diabetes educators and dietitians ever since. I noticed in the hospital that they were pushing way more carbs on my son than he normally would have eaten, pre-diagnosis, but when I mentioned this, they told me he needed 60 -90 grams per meal! But I just knew that it defied common sense for a diabetic kid to be eating so much CRAP! I have spent the last 4 months trying to figure out how to best help my son have a healthy life (with little help from the doctor, it seems.) After reading about the link between type 1 and celiac, I asked our doctor if we should be pro-active and eliminate wheat and she not only didn”t advise us to, but advised AGAINST it since our son doesn”t test positive for celiac and he needs a “balanced diet”. After some research (I”m reading Wheat Belly now) we have decided to eliminate wheat from our diet anyway. I told our doc that I have noticed his blood glucose levels are much better when he does not eat a lot of grain products, so it made sense to me to do this. However, I do have a concern. My son is quite thin, and a very active athlete. So am I and my husband, too. Since removing wheat, my husband and I have lost weight and just keep losing. I really don”t want to lose any more weight since my BMI is now 18.5. My son hasn”t lost weight, but he has grown about an inch and not gained at all. How in the world do we keep the weight on and help our son GAIN? We eat lots of eggs, meat, cheese, nuts, whole fat milk, cook in coconut oil and butter, etc.

    Also, anyone know any endocrinologists in the northern VA area that would be supportive of a wheat-free, carb restricted diet for a skinny type 1 kid??

    • Sadly, Joan, we are in the Stone Age when it comes to the conventional notion of diet and its effects on diabetes.

      In the meantime, you are doing it the right way: Don”t restrict calories, eat all you want. Should your son indulge in carbohydrates, try to make them non-wheat so that he does not suffer any further autoimmune and inflammatory destruction.

  8. Dr Davis –
    I am local to you and spent an afternoon talking with extended family who see you in your office and have taken up your Wheat- Free lifestyle and are feeling good. My question is this:

    I have had Type 1 diabetes for 30 years (diagnosed at 8). How do I incorporate this radical change in diet into a Type 1 – insulin-dependent lifestyle. It is so different then everything I have been taught to do over the last few decades. I find it very scary to take all those years of diabetic education and toss it now.

    The principles in the diet interest me because I also have asthma, IBS, fibromyalgia — among other multiple chronic health issues that also started soon after the diabetes and have wondered if everything is connected together.

    I know with Type 1 — that I have a lifetime of insulin injections — I’m resolved to that, but I feel like I don’t have to have a lifetime of feeling so “off”. Could this be an answer to all that???

    Thank you for your time.

    • Dr. Davis

      Absolutely, Maureen.

      In fact, I believe that, more than most people, you have an incredible amount of potential benefit to gain with this approach.

      First of all, note that you are highly likely to have celiac disease or some form of wheat intolerance. Wheat exposure, especially the modern forms, may have even been the inciting cause for your diabetes.

      Second, you will enjoy markedly improved blood glucose values, though you will have to be more vigilant for hypoglycemia as you become less insulin-dependent.

      Type 1 diabetes is among the most critical issues in the wheat-exposure world. For more resources specifically devoted to type 1 diabetes, Google “Dr. Richard Bernstein.” He is a wonderful resource for more information, all quite contrary to the nonsense that comes from the American Diabetes Association.

  9. Thank you for your time and answer Dr. Davis.

    As you probably can understand, this whole concept is so hard for a lifelong Type 1 to wrap their head around. Seeing that the autoimmune response that I had as a child has already taken hold and a lot of the new research is on newly diagnosed Type 1s. And those of us that have grown into adults with T1 are felt feeling left out of the discussion. But! I’ve ordered your book and I’ve got an open mind! :)

  10. Rebecca Ramnytz

    Dr. Davis,
    My mother had ankylosing spondylitis, thyroid, type 2, etc.
    I have ITP idiopathic thrombocytopenia in remission. My oldest has ulcerative colitis and thyroid disease. He is currently 24 and having a flair up is on prednisone and asacol. My twins are also affected with one having thyroid disease and the other with type 1 diabetes. They are 18. Just read ” Wheat Belly” and my 24 year old is now reading it. The gastrenterologist is considering putting him on Imuran. We don’t want it. I remember my mother saying numerous times that she felt that bread yeast was at the crux of her problem but that was her own conclusion back then. Ofcourse, doctors thought she was nuts and would get mad at her for trying to diagnose herself. My son’s gastro doc kind of poo-poohed the idea that wheat might be my son’s problem and I highly recommended your book to him with the qualifying, “I know you might think I’m a kook”, act, just to get him to listen. Please help me and direct me as I don’t want any more of these diseases in my little family as my ex and I pay over 300.00 a week for health insurance for them and I, myself, have no health insurance. I need to convince my son with type 1 diabetes to heed the message here in this book so he does no further damage to his body with the consumption of wheat. He is 18 and won’t listen to me. Stubborn personality and teenage know-it-all! Please help me convince him with a personal message of some kind! Thank You so much for your research and taking the time to write this important book! Rebecca

    • Dr. Davis

      Given the (astounding!) combination of conditions in your family, Rebecca, it is likely that everyone experiences a dramatic effect.

      For instance, the DEFAULT response to ulcerative colitis should be elimination of wheat, not pooh-poohed like some nonsense. Wheat elimination carries no risk except inconvenience. If the response is “only” a 50% reduction in symptoms at no cost, no risk . . . well, why not? The incredible ignorance over nutrition in my colleagues is the reason. In fact, some of the best data on the health effects of wheat elimination are in the area of ulcerative colitis. But there is no sexy drug rep selling wheat elimination like there are for the drugs or procedures.

      While ITP is rare, I have seen instances of response to wheat elimination, though the experience is too small to draw any anecdotal conclusions.

      There is no downside to wheat elimination except the inconvenience, yet huge upside. There is nothing to lose, given the gravity of the conditions in the family.

  11. Theresa

    I wish there was some way to test to see if this what led my son to Type 1 Diabetes. My son was diagnosed a little over a year ago at age 18. Diabetes is not on either side of our family and he has always been healthy and trim. He is 6’4″ tall and weighs 155 lbs. He has never been big on fast food junk but he did eat school food and we use to eat more processed quick foods. All of that is gone from our diets now but diabetes can never be reversed.

    • Dr. Davis

      The best you can do, Theresa, is to have his doctor run the panel of celiac tests, e.g., transglutaminase antibody. If it is positive, then you have your answer. Problem: If it is negative, there is still the potential for an association, just less likely.

      Note that there have been rare instances of reversal of type 1 diabetes with wheat elimination.