When I was a toddler, I struggled with chronic diarrhea, severe malnutrition, weight loss and fatigue. My hair was falling out and my stomach was distended. My parents took me from specialist to specialist to find out why I was failing to thrive, and I ended up in hospital for nearly two months with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. One day, while still hospitalized, I was eating my lunch and, perhaps by fluke—or maybe instinct—I decided to eat just the banana and skip the rest. Afterwards my stool was firm, and the hospital staff finally realized my problems must be food related. A bowel biopsy determined I had a severe case of celiac disease (CD), an autoimmune disease that is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. When people with CD eat gluten, the small intestine that absorbs nutrients from food is damaged.
I was put on a gluten-free diet, and I’ve been on it ever since.
There are so many hidden ingredients that contain gluten in processed foods that it can be hard to completely avoid it. You have to really do your research. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I became more aware of what was in processed foods. Today, at age 36, I read every label, and I ask about ingredients when I eat out. When I’m in doubt, I don’t eat it.
But because of the damage done before I was finally diagnosed with celiac, and years of not reading labels and unknowingly eating gluten, I’ve battled chronic pain and vitamin deficiencies. In my early 20s I was diagnosed with osteoporosis. I now see a naturopath regularly and take daily vitamin and calcium supplements; as well, I see a rheumatologist every year to have my bone density checked. Celiac disease can cause neurological problems, cancer, and fertility problems. I am lucky not to have had those issues, and that my two young sons have not inherited the condition.
When it comes to cooking for my husband and sons, I prepare the same meal for everyone, but change the grain for my meal. If we’re having pasta, I make gluten-free meat sauce for all of us, and two separate pots of noodles (mine is rice pasta, ). For sandwiches, I use gluten-free bread (preferably a freshly baked one from my local bakery) and regular bread for everyone else. With main courses (soup, quiche, chili, or stew), I prepare them gluten free. My favorite cereals have gluten-free oats, flax and dried fruit.
In part because I couldn’t find many good online resources for living gluten free, I started a website called glutenfreefind.com. It features my blog as well as other contributors’ blogs, and it’s also a directory to stores that carry gluten-free products. I love that the website lets me communicate with other people who have CD.
Back in the ’70s, when I was first diagnosed, it was difficult to find gluten-free products. Thankfully, things have changed: Now I can shop at any grocery or health food store to find tasty foods. And the products are improving all the time, which makes it so much easier to be gluten free and stay healthy.
March/April 2012 issue of Best Health magazine