Can wheat cause diabetes?

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

12 Responses to Can wheat cause diabetes?

  1. Chris 16 September 2009 at 10:39 am #

    An excellent topic, John.
    At risk of seeming to be posting off-topic but really not, honest, has anyone followed or caught airtime given over to colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honey bees? Bee colonies, particularly those commercial ones and in the USA, have been suffering from high mortality which threatens honey production and also crop pollination.
    Researchers are leveling concern at colony infestation by the parasitic varroa mite which spreads an RNA virus to which the bees are vulnerable. But most interesting is a growing realisation that other factors may be involved. Colonies can tolerate the mite and virus without suffering collapse.
    Theories are emerging that a number of external factors act as ‘stressors’ which degrade the bees immune ability below a threshold and whereby they can no longer defend against the virus. Such ‘stressors’ as postulated can be grouped as pertaining to bee ‘habitat’ and change therein. The commercial bees are forced to live an itinerant lifestyle being transported from south to north to follow the need for crop pollination, they are forced to feed from monocultures resultant from modern agricultural methods and lacking in fringe diversity from say, hedgerows, then, of course, pesticide or herbicide use is under scrutiny. It is the resultant stress from these factors, perhaps with others, that tips the balance. The factors have something in common; they are change imposed by human intervention and departure from natural systems.

    To return to the topic my point is that perhaps CCD is an excellent illustration of something that even with insight as to a mechanism in ill-health, there may be merit in looking for ( even to the point of expectation) a supporting cast of additional factors. This is an observation in full support of what you say.

    Through assisting my son complete a school project recently, I learned that coral reefs are sensitive indicators of planetary change by virtue of be being ecosystems in delicate balance. Perhaps through their being sensitive indicators the bees have something to teach us about another delicate ecosystem – ourselves. Sadly, myself included, by the time many of us become concerned considerable harm has been done.

    ‘Pancreatic exhaustion’ is a helpful phrase in discussion but is limiting in systemic comprehension. Reduced pancreatic function could arise from a number of things, are ‘they’ any nearer to narrowing it down?

  2. Peter Silverman 16 September 2009 at 4:45 pm #

    Richard Johnson’s research on pigs showed that you can give pigs diabetes by feeding them sugar, wheat doesn’t have the same effect. (No need for readers to say pigs aren’t people, I have noticed that myself.) Makes me think it might not be wheat.

    Also, it’s interesting that in the past the Japanese ate rice all day long and hardly ever got diabetes. Makes me think maybe it is wheat.

  3. Katrina 18 September 2009 at 10:47 am #

    As a type 1 diabetic I am always interested in the theories that may contribute or cause it;s development. Usually research is focused on type II diabetes (especially diabetes UK).

    I read about a study not long ago that links type 1 with an intolerance to gluten, obviously found in significant proportions in wheat based products. This would then add significance to the above findings.

    I find wheat and dairy products both difficult to digest. I can no longer tolerate full fat dairy products and I have totally elminiated products containg gluten. My blood sugar control seems better for it too. Together with my opinion now and that of a great nutritionist that generally I should eat low carb.

    Has anyone else also read about the possibility of gluten playing a role in type 1 diabetes?

    Great blog post John, some more along these lines, please.

  4. sue foreman 18 September 2009 at 11:03 am #

    Interesting. I’ve long wondered if

    – the method now used to mill wheat (which I believe is steel rollers, which break down the grain more and in the process heat it more than previous methods), and

    – the widespread use of homogenization of milk (thus, I suppose breaking down the fat molecules more)

    has something to do with the problems pealpe appear to have with wheat and dairy.

  5. Anne 18 September 2009 at 11:11 am #

    So many people seem to have problems with wheat, especially in bread, these days that I agree that new strains of wheat may be causing a problem.

    I also wonder whether the way we make bread commercially makes a difference. The process is much faster than traditional breadmaking, meaning the wheat/gluten is not going through the fermentation process for as long. Could this make the gluten harder to tolerate?

    (Apologies for the ‘unscientific’ nature of my comments!)

  6. Jo 18 September 2009 at 12:01 pm #

    John, do you think there might be a wheat ‘link’ with other autoimmune diseases? Am thinking of thyroid disorders specifically, they are so common. This is me nagging you to post something about thyroids and wheat!! (There seems to be a little evidence gathering on this, from what I can gather, and I know there are lots of us who would appreciate your evaluation of it, if you think it’s valid.)

  7. Hilda Glickman 20 September 2009 at 2:33 am #

    Jo, There is evidence that this is the case. In his book ‘Dangerous Grains’ Braly argues that wheat can cause inflammtion in the intestines and a permeable gut lining which allows molecules into the bloodtream that should not be there. The body sets up an immine response to these. He argues that people with thyroid problems could be sensitive to wheat, also typt 2 diabetes. Hilda Glickman Nutritionist

  8. Jo 23 September 2009 at 11:28 am #

    Hilda, thanks for that – I haven’t read this!

  9. Trinkwasser 29 September 2009 at 8:20 pm #

    Wheat Germ Agglutinin

    Both Peter and Stephan

    have dug up some excellent research on dietary lectins expecially from wheat, including this

  10. al 16 December 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    I quit wheat because it was raising hell with my guts. When I recovered from its effects I noticed my arthritic pain subsided, I temporarily lost weight rapidly, the plaque on my teeth disappeared, my bowel movements became solid and normal, my mental fog is gone after a year. I had my teeth cleaned every six months because of the calcium build up and now it’s been over a year and they are still spotless. I should mention that I had colon cancer in 2001 and believe gluten was the primary cause. The other was an acidic diet. Wheat is highly acidic and inflammatory. The human body needs to be at a PH of 7 if not it compensates by pulling calcium from bones to neutralize the acid. In men it is the cause of frequent night time urination. If I could have kept eating wheat I would have developed type 2 diabetes,cancer again, liver or kidney failure, heart attack, clogged arteries or ? Knowing what I now know even if I had no problems with it I would avoid it at all costs.

  11. Igunma Kate 21 July 2013 at 9:02 am #

    I’m at a crossroad here! Down here we are advised to take wheat instead of rice. Though I’m glad for reading this.

  12. Aleksei 1 December 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    Hi! My son is 8 years old. He had a strong allergy for 3 months 2 years ago and then he felt bad and got the diagnose of diabet 1 (high sugar level in blood and urine, acetone) They started insulin therary and it stabilised very quickly. We felt that allergy is connected with it directly but doctors said it was not possible. Allergy tests showed the allergy to wheat, milk and some other products. We reduced a lot the consumption of these products, sugar level is ok, no need of insulin now, may be it is so called “honey moon” almost 2 years without insulin will see what it will be. One can write me if question appears or something. Good health to everyone!

Leave a Reply