Introducing babies to gluten-rich foods such as Weetabix from four months of age could prevent them from developing wheat allergies as they get older, study finds.
Researchers from King’s College London examined data on 1,004 babies as part of a wider study into food tolerances and how they develop.
Half those studied were breastfed exclusively until six months, the other half were fed foods often linked to known allergies later in life.
Allergy-related foods given to the infants in the early weening group included gluten, sesame, wheat, eggs, cod fish and cow’s milk.
The team found by aged three, seven of the children in the breastmilk only group had coeliac disease compared to none in the group given wheat.
Experts warned that more studies were needed before changes are made to national advice on weaning – which is the NHS recommends should start at six months.
Introducing babies to gluten-rich foods such as Weetabix from four months of age could prevent them from developing wheat allergies as they get older, study finds. Stock image
For the study, the babies who were given wheat were fed 0.14 ounces of wheat protein every week from four months of age in the form of two Weetabix
The research, called the Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) Study, was published in the journal JAMA Paediatrics and involved a team of US and UK researchers.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease in which eating gluten – found bread, pasta and cereals – causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues.
Common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, wind, constipation and indigestion and sufferers must exclude gluten from their diet.
For the EAT study, the babies who were given wheat were fed 0.14 ounces of wheat protein every week from four months of age in the form of two Weetabix.
The entire group were tested for anti-transglutaminase antibodies – an indicator of coeliac disease – at three years of age.
Those with raised antibody levels were referred for further testing by a specialist.
Lead author Gideon Lack, professor of paediatric allergy at King’s College London said this study provides evidence introducing significant amounts of wheat to a baby under six months could prevent the development of coeliac disease.
“This strategy may also have implications for other autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes,’ the expert explained.
Author Dr Kirsty Logan, researcher in paediatric allergy at King’s College London, said the early introduction of gluten should be explored further.
Future studies could make use of the results of the EAT Study as the basis for larger clinical trials to definitively answer this question.
Dr Baptiste Leurent from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, not involved in the study, said differences in coeliac rates could be down to chance.
‘Typically, a result that has more than 5 per cent chance to have happened by chance alone is not considered sufficient evidence – here we are just below this threshold, at 2 per cent,’ Leurent explained.
Half those studied were breastfed exclusively until six months, the other half were fed foods often linked to known allergies later in life. Stock image
‘In other words, even if food introduction had no effect, there was around a 2 per cent chance for these seven children to end up in the same group.’
He agreed with the study authors in saying that the subject should be examined in more detail as there could be other explanations behind the different rates.
For example, although less likely, the difference could have been due to other allergenic ingredients introduced early such as milk or peanuts.
“Other studies have found an effect toward the other direction, and is it is therefore too early to suggest any change in the baby’s diet to the public,’ he said.
‘However, it is an interesting finding, which definitely needs further exploration, as the study authors acknowledge.”
The findings have been published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
COELIAC DISEASE: AN AUTOIMMUNE DISORDER
Coeliac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder in which gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.
Gluten provokes inflammation in the small intestine which affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.
The condition is estimated to affect one in 100 people worldwide.
One percent – or three million Americans – are living with coeliac disease.
There are more than 200 symptoms of coeliac disease but the more common ones are:
Abdominal bloating and pain
Pale, foul-smelling, or fatty stool
The only treatment for the disease and is a strict gluten-free diet.
Only foods and beverages with a gluten content less than 20 parts per million are allowed.
Source: Celiac Disease Foundation