Deciding to Raise a Gluten-Free Kid

The evidence is slight, and the diet sets her further apart from the other kids. But we chose to do everything that might improve our daughter's health after she was diagnosed with diabetes.

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When our daughter Bisi was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D), we spent three overwhelming days in the hospital figuring out the complicated glucose testing, carbohydrate counting, and insulin measuring regimens that now needed to happen at every meal. I think it was on our last day there that my husband, Mark, suggested we have Bisi try gluten-free, as well.

When Bisi got her diagnosis, he had gone into full research mode and had found a study of a five year-old boy in Denmark with T1D who had gone gluten-free after a couple of weeks without needing insulin treatment. He had gone into a "honeymoon period" -- when your pancreas starts working again after diagnosis, after the insulin injections have given the sputtering organ a chance to rest. At the time of the study, this boy had been in remission for 20 months, and the researchers hypothesized that going gluten-free had increased the length of his remission. We were told in the hospital that a honeymoon period can last weeks, months, even a year, before its inevitable end. So 20 months is pretty unusual.

Mark and I got into a bit of a ... debate about whether Bisi should go gluten-free. I pointed out that she wasn't even in a honeymoon period, and that the story of one boy in Denmark wasn't enough reason to make her diet even more restricted than it already was. Also, all of our lives were already going through such huge changes. We hadn't even perfected the basics of how to carb count or cook for our newly diabetic daughter. How could we pile something as complicated as going gluten-free on top of it? Realistically, how could I take on the gluten-free cooking--since I'm the one who does 98% of it.

Mark did some more research, but the picture didn't become much clearer. There is no clear link between gluten and diabetes, but there are some hints of a connection. Ten percent of people with T1D also have celiac disease -- an intolerance to the gluten in wheat (Bisi tested negative for celiac). In 2009, an article in Diabetes magazine reported on a Canadian study indicating that "wheat can cause problems other than celiac in people with type 1 diabetes": "Canadian researchers who studied 42 people with type 1 found that nearly half had an abnormal immune response to wheat proteins, while none of the 22 participants without diabetes had such a reaction. When the researchers looked for a genetic cause of the immune cell overreaction, they found that it was linked to a gene associated with T1D -- but not related to a gene associated with celiac disease. According to the study's authors, people with certain genes may be more likely to have an exaggerated immune reaction to foods like wheat, and this may spur other immune problems, like diabetes."

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Katie Bacon is a former executive editor at The Atlantic. Her blog is Eating With Bisi.

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