You may have noticed increased media interest in gluten-free diets lately. Is this simply a fad, or is there a sound nutritional reason why we should consider cutting back or even eliminating gluten – in bread, pasta and also processed foods – from our diets? 

We asked nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton, founder of Wild Nutrition, for an update on the latest thinking. 

Why is gluten sensitivity a problem? 

Non Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) has become very 'trendy' in the last year. However much of this is increase in NCGS is validated by robust research. The main protein found in gluten is called gliadin. This protein can initiate an inflammatory response via the immune system and has therefore been associated with many inflammatory health conditions including Alzheimers, diabetes, epilepsy, ADHD, depression and less sinister conditions such as an inability to concentrate, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome. The science on gluten sensitivity is evolving and new research this year suggest that gliadin alone may not be the trouble maker in gluten products. Rather the presence of poorly digestible carbohydrates known as FODMAPs may also be responsible. 

Who should avoid it? 

Anyone with coeliac disease (an established auto-immune disease) should avoid gluten. However there are many who may not be classified as coeliac via the standard medical testing, but experience symptoms and intestinal damage similar to those with celiac disease. This is classified as NCGS. There are now good clinical tests available through health practitioners to establish NCGS in individuals. As with any food, moderation is key with even healthy individuals. Wheat and gluten containing ingredients can be found in the majority of processed foods so it is very easy for your consumption of these products to be higher without even being aware of it! Too much of anything can cause problems. 

Are there any drawbacks to avoiding gluten? 

Many of the grains in which gluten is found provide vital nutrients such as B vitamins and these will need to be substituted elsewhere in the diet. Foods such as quinoa, buckwheat and wholegrain basmati rice are dense in energy and replicate the nutrients found in gluten-containing grains. I believe you should aim to remove gluten from the diet with the support of a nutritionist or dietician rather than simply cut it all out without any replacements. Also many of the commercially available 'gluten free' packaged foods contain alot of other ingredients you would be better avoiding such as salt, sugar, artificial flavourings and trans fats. It is possible to follow a gluten-free diet without living off these nutrient-poor substitutes. 

How easy is it to stick to a gluten-free diet? 

It is easy if you plan ahead but planning is the key. There is now so many gluten-free products easily available. The most problematic meals are breakfast and lunch because you are often out when you are at lunch or have left the house without breakfast. Croissants & sandwiches tend to be the most readily available breakfast & lunch to grab but it is usually easy to find somewhere that sells a baked potato or soup instead. 

What about children – should they avoid gluten too? 

Avoiding it isn't necessary but being mindful of how much you eat is always a good thing. The western childs diet is fairly high in wheat and gluten based products (think toast, sandwiches, pasta) and as I mentioned above, variation and moderation are key to prevent food sensitivities developing. There have also been a number of studies, including the ALSPAC study involving 14,000 children, looking at the association of gluten and behavioural conditions such as ADHD and Autism. The ScanBrit study 2010 suggests that removing gluten may positively affect developmental outcome for some children diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder but further studies are required.