A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with celiac disease. Although she was not experiencing any symptoms, she was tested based on the diagnosis of a close relative. The results came back positive – and from that point on she has had to make significant changes to her life.
Even if someone is not experiencing physical symptoms, celiac disease can damage the intestinal lining, which increases the risk of future health problems. According to the Canadian Celiac Association, treating the disease requires a “strict adherence to a GLUTEN FREE DIET FOR LIFE.” Their website literally spells it out in ALL CAPS.
Before my friend’s diagnosis, I had an idea of what a gluten free diet looked like: avoid bread and pasta, order bun-less burgers and use a substitute for wheat-based flour when baking. I was very wrong. Over the last few months, I have learned so much about the challenges of living with a food allergy or intolerance. It is not simply choosing the “GF” menu item at a restaurant.
Living gluten-free means:
- having to check ingredient labels on everything from salad dressing to Tylenol,
- needing a separate cutting board, knife and cooking equipment when sharing a kitchen with gluten eaters,
- bringing your own pre-prepared food to parties and dinners with friends, and
- being the only person with nothing but water in front of them when out at a restaurant.
It requires a complete lifestyle overhaul that, sadly, those who don’t have food allergies will have a hard time understanding. Eating and meal preparation are communal events in many cultures, and a diagnosis like this can lead to both physical and social isolation.
Research shows that rates of depression are more common in adults diagnosed with celiac disease and that these rates are similar to those of people living with other chronic physical illnesses. Food sensitivities or allergies in general are associated with higher levels of psychological distress (including depression and anxiety) in both children and adults.
Through my friend’s diagnosis, I have learned to be more tolerant, and I have learned to be more patient and empathetic. I have a greater understanding of just how tough it is to maintain a specialized diet – it’s a lifestyle commitment that requires tremendous dedication, strength and vigilance. One I doubt that I would have the strength for.
In honour of Nutrition Month, and in a spirit of humanity and understanding, I invite you to be kind to those around you living with food allergies. We exist in a world that is not typically designed to make their lives easy. And since we require food for survival, these folks could probably use some thoughtful support and understanding.
For more information about food allergies and how to provide support, visit the Newly Diagnosed Support Centre created by Food Allergy Canada.
All my best,
Canadian Celiac Association: http://www.celiac.ca/
Cummings, A. J., Knibb, R. C., King, R. M. and Lucas, J. S. (2010). The psychosocial impact of food allergy and food hypersensitivity in children, adolescents and their families: a review. Allergy 65: 933–945. doi:10.1111/j.1398-9995.2010.02342.x
Lieberman, J. A. & Sicherer, S. H. (2011). Quality of life in food allergy. Current Opinion in Allergy and Clinical Immunology 11(3): 236–242. doi: 10.1097/ACI.0b013e3283464cf0
Smith, D. F. and Gerdes, L. U. (2012). Meta-analysis on anxiety and depression in adult celiac disease. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 125: 189–193. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2011.01795.x