'Why festive food is a challenge'

'Why festive food is a challenge'

Photograph © Fabio De Paola, UNP

Tucking into festive treats such as mince pies or Christmas cake simply isn’t an option for Anne Smith. Like thousands of people across the UK, Anne has coeliac disease – an autoimmune condition triggered by a reaction to gluten found in wheat, barley and rye.

Eating anything with these ingredients can cause severe symptoms – sometimes within just hours. Over the past decade there has been a four-fold increase in the number of people in the UK diagnosed with the condition, although experts say this could be due to better awareness and diagnosis.

Anne (54) was told she had the condition 14 years ago following constant health problems and terrible tiredness that left her totally exhausted. Like others with the condition, she has to be extra careful at Christmas time
to ensure her diet is gluten-free.

 “All I have to do is remember how ill I was before I was diagnosed and that the only way to control it is to avoid certain foods.”

Anne’s problems started when she was in her mid-30s. She began suffering from nausea, bloating, upset stomachs and severe tiredness and initially was diagnosed with anaemia and IBS. Her GP advised her to eat extra fibre to combat the latter, but the problems got worse. At one point she felt so bad she had to lie down after eating Sunday dinner. Meanwhile the tiredness forced her to take time off work.

“For years I lived with tiredness and stomach problems but managed to get on with my life. When I started having to lie down after eating, I knew something was wrong. I lost three-and-a-half stone and was so exhausted that I couldn’t work. I often wished my bed was closer to the bathroom because it took so much effort for me to walk there. I was worried I had a serious illness like cancer.” Eventually, Anne went back to her GP and demanded an answer.

“The surgery arranged for me to have blood tests, and called the next day to say they were 99 per cent certain I had coeliac disease. Two weeks later I had an endoscopy which confirmed the diagnosis and I saw a consultant. Although I was relieved not to be suffering from anything really serious, I was scared stiff. I knew nothing about coeliac disease. I couldn’t even pronounce the word properly and everything I was being told about following a gluten-free diet worried me.

‘Cutting out gluten is a small price to pay for feeling good and having energy’

“I loved granary bread and chocolate digestives, but could no longer eat them. Advised to eat gluten-free food, I was told to check the ingredients of everything I bought. If I was eating out, I had to be certain the chef could prepare a gluten-free meal without the risk of cross contamination from other food. My first trip to the supermarket took more than four hours – I spent so long checking labels and putting items back on the shelves that a store detective began to watch my every move!”

Because Anne’s stomach was badly damaged it took six months before she started to feel better and gain weight. In time, she noticed the benefits of a gluten-free diet and follows the mantra, ‘If in doubt, leave it out’. “I can’t bury my head in the sand,” she says. “Everything that goes into my mouth ends up in my digestive system so I can’t take risks.”

Having joined the Coeliac Voluntary Group in Nottingham, Anne wanted to help others with the disease and took on the role of group organiser two years ago. Nowadays she’s busy advising newly- diagnosed coeliacs, helping members overcome problems and organising group meetings, coffee mornings, and the annual Christmas meal.

Anne’s own Christmas will either be spent at home or with a family member. “Finding a restaurant willing to prepare gluten-free food at this time of year can be difficult because everywhere is so busy. If I use the word ‘coeliac’ when making a restaurant enquiry and am asked, ‘what’s that?’ I don’t go.

“Christmas can be challenging, but there are lots of gluten-free foods available so I don’t miss out. Cutting out gluten is a small price to pay for feeling good and having energy. Planning ahead is well worth the effort and I’ll still have a really happy Christmas!”

More about gluten

Coeliac disease affects one in 100 people in the UK. Symptoms vary and may include bloating, diarrhoea, anaemia, skin rash and joint or bone pain. Because of the variety of symptoms, it is often misdiagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). If left untreated, coeliac disease can lead to osteoporosis, fertility problems and in rare cases a form of bowel cancer.

There are specific blood tests that look for antibodies that the body makes in response to eating gluten. If you are concerned you may have coeliac disease, speak to your GP, but it’s essential to continue eating gluten for a minimum of six weeks before you’re tested.

Coeliac UK’s advice for a successful Christmas dinner...

  • Poultry, meat, fish and veg are naturally gluten-free.
  • Use gluten-free gravy (or make it using meat juices and thicken with cornflour).
  • Gluten-free stuffing and Yorkshire puddings can be found in most supermarkets.
  • Cider, wine, sherry, spirits, port and liqueurs are gluten-free, so you can enjoy a festive tipple!

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