Coeliac Awareness Week was held last month, organised by the Coeliac Society of New Zealand to raise awareness of the condition that affects around 100,000 people in New Zealand. This year the theme was – Thriving: Living Your Best Coeliac Life.
Coeliac disease (CD) is an auto-immune condition, where the body thinks that gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, oats and rye, is a pathogen that needs to be eliminated. The immune response the body undergoes causes inflammation and gut damage. Left undiagnosed, CD can cause serious long-term negative health outcomes, such as an increased risk of bowel cancer and nutrient deficiencies leading to anaemia and osteoporosis.
A strict life-long gluten-free diet is the only treatment, which may sound simple. However, following a strict gluten-free diet is not easy. Due to the serious nature of CD, it isn’t as simple as cutting out wheat bread or wheat pasta. Even one crumb from cross-contamination in a toaster is enough to cause a negative reaction that may leave some with CD sick for days.
There is also the issue that some people with CD are asymptomatic with low levels of gluten intake. This means that while there is inflammation and gut damage occurring, it isn’t enough to show symptoms.
This is a big problem because if the person doesn’t know that they are being affected, then they can’t stop the gluten intake. This means that they are at a higher risk of the negative health outcomes mentioned above, without even knowing it.
It’s so much easier to manage CD if there is a significant response to go by, though they aren’t nice to experience. Especially when you are out and about. Eating out, whether at a restaurant or at a friend’s house, can be difficult when living with CD. You are often put in the “too hard basket” or thought of as “that difficult person”. Or you are too afraid of accidentally ingesting gluten and becoming ill so you just don’t go out. That means you are often excluded from social interactions.
Never mind the physical effects of CD. One aspect that is rarely talked about is the impact on quality of life, the mental and emotional effects. Research shows that social interactions are very important for our overall wellbeing. If you are always missing out on social events because of your diet, you aren’t going to be living your best gluten-free life.
If you know of someone with CD and you have been putting off inviting them for dinner or for a coffee date because catering for them is “too hard”, please try again. The first thing to do is to talk to them. Ask them what you can do to ensure that you don’t accidentally serve gluten. Chances are they have some great ideas, and may even offer to bring something that they know will be safe for them to eat.