You’ve probably noticed a lot of food packages on grocery store shelves with gluten-free labels. If you have diabetes, you may be wondering if gluten is something you should avoid.
Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains. These include wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten can cause inflammation of the small intestine in people with celiac disease. This can result in abdominal pain, diarrhea, and gas, as well as anemia, joint and muscle pain, skin conditions, and fatigue. It is necessary to follow a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life if you have celiac disease.
Some of those same symptoms are experienced by individuals with a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These people don’t endure the same kind of injury and irritation to the small intestine as those with celiac disease, but gluten intolerance can still cause physical and even mental problems. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can sometimes lead to fuzzy thinking and depression.
Gluten and diabetes
About one in 100 people have celiac disease, but about 10 percent of people with type 1 diabetes also have celiac disease. Research suggests that there may be a genetic link between celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. Certain biomarkers in your blood that make you more likely to have celiac disease may also increase your odds of developing type 1 diabetes. Both of these conditions have an inflammatory component, which causes the immune system to attack the body’s tissues or organs, such as the intestines or pancreas.
There doesn’t appear to be a connection between celiac disease and type 2 diabetes. If you do have both conditions, you should be doubly careful about your diet.
Gluten and carbs
Gluten is found in many high-carb foods because they are often grain-based. High-carb foods can raise your blood sugar, so be cautious when consuming them. If you’re also on the lookout for gluten, you need to be especially careful about reading labels.
Unless you see a “gluten-free” label, assume that most pastas, baked goods, beer, and snack foods have some gluten. All it takes for a person with celiac disease (and even sometimes a gluten intolerance) to have a reaction is a very small amount of gluten.
If you’re looking for starchy foods to round out your diabetes-friendly diet, there are plenty of options that don’t include gluten. Among them are white and sweet potatoes, brown and wild rice, corn, buckwheat, soy, quinoa, sorghum, and beans.
Switching to gluten-free starchy carbohydrates doesn’t mean you can stop counting carbs. You will, however, have plenty of healthy alternatives if gluten-containing grains are off the list.
Gluten-free products may be higher in added sugars or sodium to help boost flavor, so read labels carefully. The carb counts on even very common foods may differ from what you’re used to if they are gluten-free. Many gluten-free products also contain less fiber. This may cause the carbohydrates to be more rapidly absorbed, which can spike blood sugar.
Should I go gluten-free?
If you don’t have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you don’t need to follow a gluten-free diet. There do not appear to be any great health benefits, as compared to other diets that are specifically designed for people with diabetes.
If you have diabetes and celiac disease, you absolutely should go gluten-free. It’s the only way to avoid the pain and damage caused by eating even a little gluten.
Consult a dietitian who’s also a certified diabetes educator about switching to a gluten-free diet. It’s a big transition, but with some help, it can be easier than you might think.