Overview

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 symptoms that include:

It’s necessary to follow a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life if you have celiac disease.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)

Some symptoms of celiac disease are experienced by people with a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). These people don’t experience the same kind of injury and irritation to the small intestine as those with celiac disease, but gluten intolerance can still cause physical and mental problems. Intolerance to other components of gluten-containing foods such as FODMAPs, a group of fermentable carbohydrates may cause physical or mental problems. NCGS can sometimes lead to fuzzy thinking and depression.

The connection between gluten and diabetes

About 1 in 100 people have celiac disease, but about 10 percent of people with type 1 diabetes also have celiac disease, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). 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 increase your risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Both 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.

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 you consume them. If you’re also on the lookout for gluten, you need to be careful about reading labels.

Unless you see a “gluten-free” label, assume most pastas, baked goods, beer, and snack foods have some gluten. All it takes is a very small amount of gluten for a person with celiac disease and sometimes a gluten intolerance to have a reaction. Read about what foods to avoid.

If you’re looking for starchy foods to round out your diabetes-friendly diet, there are plenty of options that don’t include gluten. They include:

Switching to gluten-free starchy carbohydrates doesn’t mean you can stop counting carbs. You’ll 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 common foods may differ from what you’re used to if they’re 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 NCGS, you don’t need to follow a gluten-free diet. There do not appear to be any great health benefits, compared with other diets designed for people with diabetes.

If you have diabetes and celiac disease, you 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.