I read a series of articles in the Irish Independent over the weekend about coeliac disorder and how the ‘gluten-free’ trend in food right now is having an impact on the lives of those who can’t (rather than doesn’t want to) eat gluten.
I first started having problems with my stomach in my late teens. I was tested for coeliac disease amongst other things, and every test came back clear. I would inevitably be put on some course of tablets or other, which would settle things down for a little while, only to suffer another flare up once again before too long. There was even talk about more serious procedures if I couldn’t find a way to manage things through my diet.
By ‘flare up’ I mean feeling absolutely ill and like you needed to be sick after eating too much gluten in one sitting, or too many smaller quantities in close proximity. I don’t mean feeling ‘full’ or ‘uncomfortable’ after eating white bread like I hear so many people complain about; I mean a swollen, painful stomach, intense reflux that could last a day or two and cause restless, sleepless nights. I mean cramps and gurgling noises that suggest you haven’t eaten in a week. All of which can be acutely embarrassing when you’re around people not in the know.
I haven’t always been very careful about what I eat, but – for the most part – keeping a decent eye out on things and having the odd crisp sandwich or biscuit is enough to maintain a relatively even keel. I know when there’s trouble brewing, and I’m experienced enough with it now to know that I need to avoid the temptation of fresh bakery aisle in Lidl!
I attended the Allergies Expo in Cork with my Mum, who had gone to great lengths over the years to help me, late last year. It was amazing to see all the new allergy-focused brands springing up around the place, and it’s great to see that some of these were founded and are based in Cork too.
I’m lucky that I live close to a great Supervalu at the moment. Their range of gluten-free product has never been better and Dunnes, Tesco and others have been making great strides too. Like the people featured in the Indo articles, however, I find there has been a downside to the latest gluten-free drive.
If you eat well – meat, fish, fruit and vegetables – then you should have the staples of a very solid and nutrient-rich diet. The growing number of friends and acquaintances that have professed themselves to be eating ‘gluten-free’ now surprises me. I don’t believe it’s a healthier lifestyle choice for the individuals involved, and I really and only smile and nod when they share their ‘advice’ on how it works for them.
The reality is that gluten-free products usually cost significantly more, and staying or eating with friends is more than a little awkward. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve rolled up to a friend’s house only to be presented with lasagne for dinner or some variety of pasta or other. I’ll always eat away – manners can be a terrible thing – and I feel even worse when thoughtful friends go to the trouble of getting in gluten-free food while I’m staying and I feel obliged to tuck in even though it’s easier (and cheaper) to abstain for a couple of days.
Like all trends, I’m sure people will move on to another area of focus in time. ‘Gluten-free’ products still contain grains, flour and other items that people might like to avoid – they’re just different ones, ones that don’t elicit an ugly response for some of us.
Speaking to a nutritionist recently, she explained that one of the biggest difficulties with diagnosing coeliac or gluten-intolerance is that in an attempt to make a connection, we often reduce foods in a certain category (gluten, diary etc.) and when we feel better for having done so, we go to get medical confirmation of an allergic to a substance we have actually removed from our diet anyway…
Excluding any readily-available food element from your regular diet is never easy, no matter what, so if people want to do it for their own personal reasons, off with them. However, for those of us that need to be strict with our diet rather than preferring to be strict, we’re suddenly being lumped into the fussy eaters club when most of us would love nothing more than be able to eat pizza, or bread, or beautiful freshly-made penne pasta covered in a fresh pesto dressing*.
*begins to drool just a little
So, next time you hear ‘gluten-free’, remember: it’s not a choice for some of us!