Anne Churchill came to a decision years ago: eating a cookie wasn’t worth the pain.
The Stewiacke woman has celiac disease. She suffers if she eats something containing even a small amount of gluten.
“We knew something was really wrong when I was in Grade 9,” she said. “I was extremely tired and had low hemoglobin."
At first, her condition was thought to be infectious. Churchill spent two weeks in the isolation unit of the IWK.
"My parents visited with gloves and gowns on.
“I should have been out playing soccer with my friends, but I didn’t have the energy for anything.”
Her iron intake was increased and when she got home, her mother cooked a lot of liver and onions. She still didn’t feel great.
In her twenties, Churchill saw a new doctor, Mike Howlett, who asked her to write down what she was eating. After looking at her list he had a scope done. She was diagnosed with celiac disease.
She cut foods containing gluten from her diet. This includes anything containing wheat and several other grains. It can also show up in unexpected places.
“You have to watch flavourings because they sometimes contain it,” said Churchill. “It’s in some candy and the shell coating of gum. My advice is, if you don’t know all the ingredients, avoid foods.”
Everything that comes into her home now is gluten free, except for her husband’s bread.
While she’s had several years to adjust to a gluten-free diet, it’s a relatively new way of eating for Kaitlyn Hardy. The Truro woman had to change her diet a couple of years ago because of gluten sensitivity.
“The toughest part is when someone around me is eating pizza and I’m wishing I could have some,” she said.
“There are a lot of restrictions when I go out to eat and potlucks are hard. Sometimes there are gluten-free foods, but if they’re prepared in the same place with things made with regular flour there can be cross contamination that will affect people who are really sensitive.
“Some restaurants ask if I’m ordering gluten-free food because of a preference or an allergy. I have to specify, so they’ll be very careful.”
Hardy had no problem with foods containing gluten as a child. However, during the past couple of years she experienced an increase in digestive problems. After testing, her doctor told her she is either celiac or has non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
“I didn’t need to go through further testing because, either way, it’s the same prescription,” she said.
She’s learned she also has sensitivities to dairy, eggs, msg and soy.
“I do a lot more cooking now and I’ve learned to be creative in the kitchen. My diet is healthier and less processed now.”
Jo Welch is an assistant professor of kinesiology, with a specialty in bones and nutrition, at Dalhousie University. She's concerned about the diets of many who don't have sensitivities but are going gluten free simply because they believe it’s healthier.
“Gluten-free by itself can be less healthy because people can be eating hyper-processed flour instead of whole grains,” she said. “Gluten isn’t a problem for most people, but some get on a bandwagon for any diet that comes along.
“It was a book that came out that sparked it, and it wasn’t written by someone with a background in digestive issues, but they wrote convincingly.”
A recent study by the unit of gastroenterology at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in Sheffield, England, found eating foods containing gluten doesn’t result in health problems for most people.
Welch stresses people on a gluten-free diet need to add other whole grains to their diet.
“There’s a myriad of other grains and seeds available. People can explore recipes to find new grains and avoid overly processed foods. They should also ensure they get enough fruits and vegetables. The rising rates of colorectal cancer in young adults is correlated with fruit and vegetable intake.”
Churchill and Hardy are both being careful to ensure they eat a balanced diet.
“There are lots of grains I can eat and there are a lot more choices at the store now,” said Churchill. “It’s nice to have choices because those of us that have the condition really need the gluten-free food.”
When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine and promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body. -From the Celiac Disease Foundation website
Symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, weight loss, nausea, bloating and anemia, rash, and headaches.
Celiac disease and heredity
Celiac disease is hereditary. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, a person with a parent or sibling who has the condition has a one-in-10 risk of developing it themselves. Three of Anne Churchill’s four sisters are celiac while her three brothers aren’t affected.