There is always a lot of controversy in nutrition. One week something is hailed as the cure all, and next week it might just knock you off. One subject that usually is smack bang in the middle of controversy is gluten and gluten sensitivity. It often comes up on health programs, but unfortunately they usually talk about what a con the whole "gluten-free" market is and that unless you have coeliac disease, there is nothing wrong with gluten.
Ok, so where to start? The general public do seem to have this idea that gluten-free foods, no matter how processed or sugar-laden, must ultimately be healthier, although they aren’t sure why. This isn’t particularly helpful, and this is probably why there is an understandable backlash against the gluten-free brigade. It's easy to find many examples of gluten-free foods that are completely unhealthy, such as the processed, high sugar foods you often find in the gluten-free section in the supermarket. But to decide that because there are unhealthy gluten-free foods, therefore gluten containing foods must be healthy, is simplistic.
I am definitely not advocating a blanket approach here and saying that gluten is bad and must therefore be removed from all diets forever more. I don't believe removing things from people's diets when they are otherwise healthy is particularly helpful - better to get people to focus on including more fruit and veg and more whole foods.
But I also cannot say that as a practitioner I haven't seen the benefits of people with certain conditions and symptoms removing gluten from their diets. And furthermore that even people with no obvious health problems find they feel better when they cut down on gluten products (note, I'm not saying remove). The problem with gluten is that it's in so many foods. Strictly speaking, it's found in all grains (it's the storage protein), but usually people refer to gluten grains as wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats. This is because the gluten found in these specific grains is usually more problematic than gluten found in e.g. rice, millet or corn. Just think how many products contain wheat - most people will be having a good dose of gluten everyday.
So why can it cause a problem? For people with coeliac disease their immune system undergoes specific reactions to gluten, causing inflammation and damage in the gut. It's therefore completely essential that anyone with coeliac disease removes gluten completely from their diet. No one questions this. But the questions do start coming when the term non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is bandied about. This describes a different immune reaction that people seem to experience to varying degrees. The exact mechanisms are unknown, but the result is inflammation in the gut, which can easily lead to systemic symptoms such as headaches, low energy, joint pains, menstrual problems and generally feeling a bit "foggy". Do note, although some people experience gastrointestinal problems, you don't have to have any obvious bloating or gut pain for you to be sensitive to gluten. The claim that these symptoms are caused by a reaction to gluten is often dismissed by medics, but frankly I've seen enough people myself who have had incredibly positive changes in all sorts of symptoms, purely from cutting gluten out of their diet. Yes, a lot of people who remove gluten will also reduce their sugar intake increase their fruit and veg count too, so maybe you could say it's the whole effect. But I've also worked with people who eat incredibly healthily (kale smoothies for breakfast - I'm not joking), but still had ongoing issues that were helped by completely removing gluten.
It's a really fascinating subject, and much too involved for one blog. The leading expert in this area is Dr Alessio Fasano, a paediatric gastronenterologist and world renowned for his work with both coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity. He clearly feels that gluten can cause problems in people who aren’t coeliac and given his level of expertise I wouldn’t want to dismiss it so easily. If you are really keen, either just google his name and a whole lot of information pops up, or check out one of his YouTube videos.
Overall I feel that gluten is absolutely an issue for many people with chronic health problems. So seeing a nutritional therapist to find out whether you would benefit from removing gluten might be a good idea. But for your average person I wouldn't get too het up about gluten - otherwise it will become yet another food/food-group to feel guilty about. But what is always sensible is to make sure you are varying your diet as much as possible, and not just living off the same old bread and pasta based meals. One way to do this is to try out different grains - not because you "have to" but because there is so much delicious food out there that gets ignored because people tend to stick to the same thing day in day out. Have a look at a blog I wrote on alternatives to wheat for ideas on what other grains you can go for.