Breast-feeding protects against celiac disease

Anneli Ivarsson, Olle Hernell, Hans Stenlund and Lars Åke Persson
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 75, No. 5, 914-921, May 2002


Background: Celiac disease, or permanent gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is an immunologic disease strictly dependent on exposure to wheat gluten or related proteins in rye and barley.

Objective: The aim of this study was to explore whether breast-feeding and the mode of introducing dietary gluten influence the risk of celiac disease in childhood.

Design: A population-based incident case-referent study of Swedish children, 627 cases with celiac disease and 1254 referents, was conducted; 78% of the matched sets were included in the final analyses. A questionnaire was used to assess patterns of food introduction to infants. Models were built, based on current epidemiologic and immunologic knowledge of celiac disease, to study the potential influence of dietary patterns on disease risk and were evaluated by conditional logistic regression in multivariate analyses.

Results: The risk of celiac disease was reduced in children aged <2 y if they were still being breast-fed when dietary gluten was introduced [adjusted odds ratio (OR): 0.59; 95% CI: 0.42, 0.83]. This effect was even more pronounced in infants who continued to be breast-fed after dietary gluten was introduced (OR: 0.36; 95% CI: 0.26, 0.51). The risk was greater when gluten was introduced in the diet in large amounts (OR: 1.5; 95% CI: 1.1, 2.1) than when introduced in small or medium amounts. In older children, these risk factors were of no or only minor importance.

Conclusions: The gradual introduction of gluten-containing foods into the diet of infants while they are still being breast-fed reduces the risk of celiac disease in early childhood and probably also during the subsequent childhood period.

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