Coeliac Disease: A Beginner's Guide

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Before I delve straight in to this post I just want to make something clear: gluten is not a poison. The majority of people can consume gluten containing foods without any negative symptoms or health risks, so please do not fall into the trap of thinking that it is healthy to follow a gluten free diet if you are not intolerant or allergic - unnecessarily cutting out gluten could actually induce an intolerance, or result in you missing out on many important vitamins, minerals and nutrients that gluten containing foods can provide. I have spent time with nutritional experts to find ways to manage my diet safely and healthily whilst omitting the foods that cause my gut to react as shown above. This blog post is intended to inform people of the symptoms and help to provide steps in management, but ultimately, if you think you may be coeliac, gluten intolerant or allergic to wheat please arrange an allergy test or book a colonoscopy with your GP or a fully qualified nutrition specialist - I am neither of these, but I am someone who suffers and want to use this platform to help raise awareness and provide support.

Last week, I had an allergic reaction to wheat, something that now happens incredibly rarely to me as I am so careful in ensuring that I know exactly what I put into my body and avoid all foods that cause a negative reaction in my gut. However, I let something slip through, and the resultant effects can be seen above. The photo on the left is how I 'normally' look in the morning (i.e. if I've been following my gluten free diet), and the photo on the right shows me thirty minutes after consuming a minuscule amount of wheat. To put this into perspective, my 24 inch waist (left), measured 26.5 inches after eating one small chocolate containing wheat (right). This is the result of an inflammation in my gut, and is incredibly different to feeling bloated from overeating. I originally took the above picture to show my boyfriend the reaction I had incurred, but then I thought back to my previous blog post about how I promised to always be honest with you on social media, and decided to post it on instagram (something that was incredibly hard for me to do - I doubt any one would want to post a photo of their pregnant-looking inflamed gut to 6700 instagram users), but the response I got was amazing. Not only were people incredibly supportive, but I got so many comments from people who suffer from the same, requests for a blog post, and even encouraged other people to post their own photos of adverse reactions! So in swallowing my pride, I really achieved something great. So now nearly 7000 people have seen it on my instagram, I may as well share it with the rest of you in the hope of helping out a few more people.

So why does this happen?

Usually, an adverse reaction to gluten is from one of three reasons:
001. Coeliac disease
002. Gluten Intolerance
003. An allergy to the proteins found in wheat

In short, Coeliac is an autoimmune disease where your body's immune system attacks itself when gluten is consumed, causing damage to gut lining. Gluten intolerance presents similar symptoms to Coeliac disease, but there is no resultant lasting damage to the gut. Finally, wheat protein allergies tend to occur immediately after consuming the wheat, and cause similar affects, but suffers may be able to eat other gluten containing products as long as they are wheat free.

What are the symptoms?

It is actually incredibly common to be completely unaware of an allergy or intolerance to types of gluten such as wheat, and it is estimated that a shocking 76% of suffers go undiagnosed!  Symptoms vary for a variety of reasons, spanning from the amount of gluten consumed, the severity of your intolerance and the general health of the person. The most well known symptoms include painful IBS (resulting in diarrhoea and/or constipation), nausea, stomach cramps, bloating and tiredness, but Coeliac can also lead to anaemia, B12 deficiency, hair loss and liver abnormalities, so the disease is not something to be taken lightly.

Help - I think I may be Coeliac

If any of the symptoms described above sound familiar to you, then the first thing I would suggest is to seek advice of your doctor. The first step in diagnosis usually involves a diagnosis of IBS, and it is advisable to have a routine blood test to check your iron and vitamin levels. At this stage, I'd advise keeping a food diary, and noting down the exact points that you experience symptoms and what foods may have triggered this, and eliminate these foods from your diet one at a time. If this does not work, your doctor will be able to refer you for an allergy test, however, it is vital that you are still consuming gluten at this point otherwise the disease may not show up in the test! Alternatively, you can go directly to a dietician or registered gut specialist who will be able to carry out these tests for you for a fee.

What next?

Being New to Gluten Free living can be a huge and scary lifestyle change. I spent about five hours food shopping during the week following my diagnosis. I went everywhere that was in easy driving distance of my house: Tesco, Morrisons, Co-op, a Sainsbury's Local, an M&S food. I searched high and low for the 'Free From' products and spent a small fortune trying out a number of different brands and products. Although this was a huge pain at the beginning (and definitely wasn't student food shopping budget friendly), I very quickly got to grips with which brands I preferred and it wasn't long until I was able to complete my food shop just as easily as usual. My main tip for you: 'naturally gluten free' is always better... I quickly learnt that there really are so many healthy foods that are naturally gluten free, meaning you can avoid some of the questionable supermarket alternatives. I quickly replaced starchy gluten filled carbs with not only naturally gluten free alternatives, but much healthier alternatives too. I discovered sweet potato, quinoa and beans and realised that gluten free doesn't actually have to mean tasteless and boring food! 

Stay Positive

When I was diagnosed I went home and cried. All I could think about was everything that I used to enjoy and now could no longer ever taste again. I would sit in restaurants and wish that I could order anything off the menu instead of narrowing it down to things I could actually safely eat and then picking from a small and less than appetising selection. Food can become a chore, social situations become awkward as you don't want to be the one to cause a scene in a restaurant by rearranging the whole menu to find something suitable. But it really does help to try and ignore all these negatives and focus on the positives too. Remember how much healthier you now feel, remember that there are still so many nutritious and healthy foods available to you and most importantly remember not to feel awkward because your diagnosis isn't your fault!