Can wheat cause diabetes?

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The obvious answer to this question is ‘yes’, seeing as many wheat-based foods are very disruptive to blood sugar (they have high glycaemic index), particularly when eaten in quantity (meaning they have high glycaemic load too). As a result, the pancreas will generally need to pump out plenty of insulin. This, in time, can lead to insulin resistance. It can also lead to ‘pancreatic exhaustion’. Both of these situations will cause blood sugar to rise, which can lead to type 2 diabetes in time.

However, this blog is not about the relationship between wheat and its relationship to type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is actually the focus here.

Type 1 diabetes is what is known as an ‘autoimmune’ condition, which means it’s caused by the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues. In this case, the tissue that is damaged involve the cells in the pancreas responsible for secreting insulin. The question is, what causes the immune system to attack these cells?

Some have theorised that type 1 diabetes might be caused by a viral infection. In theory, as the immune mounts its defence against this foreign invader, the reaction then overspills to the cells in the pancreas. However, other scientists have suggested that the underlying trigger factor is not a virus, but food. There has, in the past, been more than a suggestion that type 1 diabetes may be related to intolerance to milk (specifically proteins in milk) [1-3]. A recent study published in the journal Diabetes provides some evidence that another potential trigger factor in type 1 diabetes is wheat [4].

In this study, 42 individuals with type 1 diabetes were assessed with regard to their immune response to protein from wheat (wheat polypeptides). Almost half of these (20) showed evidence of reactivity here ” a much higher response than would be expected normally. One of the authors of this study (Dr Fraser Scott) has previously published animal work demonstrating that wheat and milk proteins have the capacity to precipitate type 1 diabetes in animals.

We don’t know if food sensitivity causes type 1 diabetes in humans or not. What I can say from my experience is that food sensitivity seems to be at the root of some other autoimmune disorders. For example, I have seen patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis do well once problem foods had been identified and eliminated in the diet. Frequent offenders here tend to be, perhaps not surprisingly, wheat and dairy products. The same is true, in my experience, for sufferers of systemic lupus erythematosus ” an autoimmune condition that can affect pretty much any tissue in the body.

Why wheat and dairy? For start, both of these foods look to be relatively recent additions to the human diet, and therefore foods we tend not to be particularly well adapted to. On top of this, the forms of wheat and dairy we eat not are likely very different to ancient forms we first introduced into the diet. For example, selective breeding has led to the development of novel strains of wheat that we might have a hard time dealing with from a digestive and immune perspective. The same may be true for pasteurised dairy products.


1. Karjalainen J, et al. A bovine albumin peptide as a possible trigger of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. N Engl J Med 1992;327:302-307

2. Kostraba JN, et al. Early exposure to cow’s milk and solid foods in infancy, genetic predisposition, and risk of IDDM. Diabetes 1993;42:288-295

3. Fava D, et al. Relationship between dairy product consumption and incidence of IDDM in childhood in Italy. Diabetes Care 1994;17:1488-1490

4. Mojibian M, et al. Diabetes-Specific HLA-DR”Restricted Proinflammatory T-Cell Response to Wheat Polypeptides in Tissue Transglutaminase Antibody”Negative Patients With Type 1 Diabetes. Diabetes 2009;58:1789-1796

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