New research presented at the Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) suggests that breastfeeding may help lower the risk of developing Type 1 Diabetes, while more than two or three glasses of cow's milk a day in childhood could raise the odds.

The research team looked at the difference in breastfeeding longer vs. giving cow's milk after 'weaning' and found that several glasses of cow's milk a day could increase odds of children developing Type 1 Diabetes (T1D).

When one has T1D, their immune system will attack and destroy cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. Then they aren't able to produce enough to regulate blood sugar, and require supplemental insulin to do so.

T1D is thought to be triggered by a combination of genetics and environmental (through food or even virus). Still, it may develop despite genetic predisposition.

The research reported that the number of diagnoses in young people is rising by an estimated 3.4% annually in Europe and 1.9% in the U.S. T1D is the most common form of diabetes in children and its incidence is growing worldwide.

Dr. Anna-Maria Lampousi is with the Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. She led the research and said that over time, high blood sugar levels can damage the eyes, heart, kidneys and feet. Additionally, it can shorten the life expectancy of someone. She also said learning more about how to prevent it and its complications is key, particularly if virus and foodstuff triggers could be discovered.

She and her colleagues carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis of the existing research to identify which foods have been consistently linked to T1D. There have been many foodstuff associations linked to the attack on insulin-producing cells (islet autoimmunity) but nothing firmly established. Their analysis looked at 152 studies eligible for inclusion (of 5,935 identified studies). They looked at foods eaten by moms when pregnant as well as the foods eaten by children when infants and in childhood. Additionally, they looked at those who were breastfed and for how long.

They found that babies that were breastfed for longer and those that were breastfed exclusively were less likely to develop T1D.

Those breastfed for at least 6-12 months were less than half as likely (61% less likely) to develop T1D than those breastfed for less. Those given only breast milk for the first 2-3 months were 31% less likely to develop the condition than those who weren’t exclusively breastfed.

They believe this to be because breastfeeding promotes a baby's immune system maturation. Additionally, breast milk enhances the gut microbiota of the baby and this helps regulate their immune system.

Higher consumption of cow’s milk and dairy products such as butter, cheese, yogurt and ice-cream during childhood (under 15 years old) was associated with a higher risk of islet autoimmunity and T1D. In fact, they found those who drank two or three glasses of cow's milk a day were 78% more likely to develop T1D than those who consumed less. The research team believes this is because the amino acids in cow's milk may trigger the immune system's attack on the cells of the pancreas.

They also found that later introduction of gluten in a baby's diet cut the odds of developing T1D in half.
Babies who started eating gluten-containing foods like cereal, bread, pastries, biscuits and pasta, at 3-6 months old were 54% less likely to develop T1D than those introduced to the foods earlier.

Waiting until a child was four to six months old to introduce fruit to their diet was associated with a 53% reduction in their likelihood of developing T1D.

Dr. Lampousi believes that infancy and childhood diet may influence diabetes risk, and that breastfeeding gave the most benefit while early introduction to cow's milk, gluten and fruit increased the odds.

She cautioned that the evidence is limited in quantity, though, and further research would be needed to make any specific dietary recommendations.