I have been on a strict gluten-free diet since I was fifteen. No, it’s not for Instagram. No, it’s not to be a hipster. I do it to survive.
The gluten-free diet has been labelled a fad by far too many people who don’t understand what it is. It’s not their fault though, given the proliferation of articles; eat gluten-free to lose weight, how going gluten-free will make you healthier, celebs who swear by the g-free diet. It makes me want to scream. There is a dangerous cross over between dietary preferences and dietary needs and it makes people a lot less likely to understand my condition.
You may choose to be gluten-free to see what it’s like, and that’s fine. But if you do that, and think that ‘gluten-free’ is (just) a fad diet, then you could not be more wrong. Say hello to the auto-immune condition I have called coeliac disease. Also known as; if I consume gluten, I get more than a stomach ache.
Coeliac disease is a condition which affects 1 in every 100 people. Over 80% aren’t diagnosed. People are regularly misdiagnosed with other conditions, such as IBS, and – only half the people with the disease get the side effects. The only way to manage coeliac disease is to live on a strict gluten-free diet for life, as it cannot be cured.
When Coeliacs consume gluten, it triggers an auto-immune response where our immune system begins to attack itself. It causes me a severe reaction. My symptoms include nausea, abdominal cramps, bloating, brain fog, hair loss, weight fluctuation, fatigue, low mood, dizziness, mouth ulcers, itchy rash up my arms, joint pain and swelling, calcium deficiency, vitamin D deficiency, and borderline anaemia.
We need to squash the idea that going gluten-free is trendy. Fad dieting has become part of our culture and is more popular than ever.
Yet, the idea that living gluten-free is just like adhering to any dietary trend is completely false. Going gluten-free as part of your ‘fad dieting’ can actually be detrimental to your health, contrary to what the celebs tell you.
Stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and Kourtney Kardashian push the gluten-free trend as a way to keep slim. This idea that gluten-free is a ‘diet’ rather than a lifestyle and a necessity, is so damaging. These people who don’t have Coeliac, but lead the gluten-free health trend are the ones who slip in and out of eating gluten-free. Which is why I’ve had people say “you’re gluten-free, that’s cute, for weight loss?”
Have you seen the free-from aisles in supermarkets? They are filled with chocolates, crisps, crackers, bread, biscuits, brownies, sugar-filled granola, gluten-free beer and more. Realistically, going gluten-free for health, won’t help you lose weight. It might make you more aware of labels and ingredients and open to making healthier choices, but that’s it.
The idea that gluten-free fad dieting is a quick fix to weight loss is exactly the reason Coeliac Disease is rarely taken seriously. Instead, it’s something people try for a Buzzfeed video.
Videos like this make life with Coeliac Disease especially tough because people see gluten-free as a food challenge. Leading people to mindlessly mix utensils at buffets, cross-contaminate in the kitchen and suggest “a little won’t hurt will it?” Yes, it will actually, and all this does is push the narrative that gluten-free is a choice for everyone.
Let’s talk cross-contamination. This is where your gluten-free chips are thrown in the same fryer as gluten-containing onion rings and your Coeliac friendly burger gets cooked next to where they brown the regular buns. Something as small as that will still make a person with Coeliac Disease very sick. Eating out is not exciting for me, it’s a worry.
Going to a restaurant and seeing “vegan”, “vegetarian”, “low-cal”, but no gluten-free is when it affects me most. I think ‘you’re saying that you’re inclusive of dietary requirements but I’m gluten-free to survive and there is no mention of it’. Sometimes they offer to accommodate, but usually, it’s followed by “yeah my friend is gluten-free but eats it sometimes”, “a little bit of gluten won’t hurt will it?” Because of this, I know I’m not safe to eat there. It convinces me that the staff will take less care and thought when preparing my food.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Rarely eating out means I’ve enjoyed becoming an educated home cook. I’ve even started a food blog. Life post-diagnosis was initially a huge learning curve for me. I was happy I had a name for my pain but at the same time, my whole relationship with food changed. The immense support of my family, helped me to cope.
What can you do to help? Coeliac UK’s Awareness Week is May 11th – May 16th. Getting clued up on all gluten-based issues is also worthwhile, there are people with gluten allergies, wheat allergies, gluten intolerances, and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. They are all different to coeliac disease and all have different symptoms.