New research has suggested that giving babies wheat-based cereals like Weetabix from a young age could help to prevent them developing wheat allergies later in life.

The study, led by King’s College London, found that introducing high doses of gluten from early on could offer protection against coeliac disease.

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Can you prevent wheat intolerance?

The study suggested babies should be weaned from four months old, but experts have warned that further research is needed before the national advice is changed, with the NHS currently recommending weaning should start at around six months of age.

A total of 1,004 children were examined for the study, published in the journal JAMA Paediatrics, and were randomly split into two groups.

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The 516 in group one were exclusively breastfed until they were around six months old, while the 488 remaining children in group two ate allergenic foods as well as breast milk from around four months of age.

These foods included peanut, sesame, wheat, eggs, cod fish and cow’s milk.

Babies who were given wheat were fed four grams of wheat protein every week from four months old, in the form of two wheat-based cereal biscuits, such as Weetabix.

At the age of three, the group was tested for anti-transglutaminase antibodies, which is an indicator of coeliac disease, with those who had raised antibody levels referred for further testing by a specialist.

Results showed that, by this age, seven of the children in the breast milk only group had developed coeliac disease, compared with zero in the group that had been given wheat.

Lead author Gideon Lack, professor of paediatric allergy at King’s College London, said: “This is the first study that provides evidence that early introduction of significant amounts of wheat into a baby’s diet before six months of age may prevent the development of coeliac disease.

“This strategy may also have implications for other autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes.”

What is coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease in which eating gluten causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues.

This causes damage to the small intestine, meaning the body is unable to take in nutrients.

The disease is caused by an adverse reaction to gluten, a dietary protein found in three types of cereal:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye

Gluten is found in any food which contains these cereals, including bread, pasta, cakes, breakfast cereals, some ready meals and beer, among others.

Common symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, indigestion and constipation.

There is currently no cure for coeliac disease, but following a gluten-free diet should help to control symptoms and prevent long-term complications.