PORTLAND, Oregon — Eating more gluten may lower your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, researchers said Thursday.

In a long-term observational study presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention/Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health 2017 Scientific Sessions., most participants had gluten intake below 12 grams a day.

Within this range, those who ate the most gluten had lower Type 2 diabetes risk during 30 years of follow-up. Study participants who ate less gluten also tended to eat less cereal fiber, a protective factor for Type 2 diabetes developing.

Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley. It gives bread and other baked goods elasticity during the baking process and a chewy texture in finished products.

A small percentage of the population can’t tolerate gluten due to gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, a chronic autoimmune disorder that impacts both the digestive tract and other parts of the body.

Gluten-free diets have become popular for people without these conditions, though there is lack of evidence that reducing gluten consumption benefits long-term health.

“Gluten-free foods often have less dietary fiber and other micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals), making them less nutritious, and they also tend to cost more,” said Geng Zong, Ph.D., a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “People without celiac disease may reconsider limiting their gluten intake for chronic disease prevention, especially for diabetes.”

Participants in the highest 20 percent of gluten consumption had a 13 percent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the lowest daily amount — less than 4 grams.

During the study, which included 4.24 million person-years of follow-up from 1984-1990 to 2010-2013, researchers found 15,947 cases of Type 2 diabetes.

For their study, researchers estimated daily gluten intake for 199,794 participants in three long-term health studies from food-frequency questionnaires every two to four years. The average daily gluten intake was 5.8 grams for the Nurses’ Health Study, 6.8 for the Nurses’ Health Study II and 7.1 for the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

Major dietary sources were pastas, cereals, pizza, muffins, pretzels and bread.