I didn’t realise I’d had a stomach ache for nearly my entire life.
Perhaps that sounds insane – and maybe (probably) retrospectively it is. But when you have an autoimmune disease like Coeliac, you often do not know what it is like to live another way.
For me, before a blood test revealed a Coeliac diagnosis late last year at age 31, I had always felt a dull ache when I pressed on my gut. I never gave a second thought to how often my stomach painfully swelled with no warning. But when a bout of what I thought was the worst food poisoning I’d ever had didn’t let up after two weeks, my husband pushed me to consult a doctor.
I learned my immune system had been attacking itself every time I ate gluten.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune reaction to the proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. That is not the same as a gluten intolerance. Diagnosed individuals sustain intestinal damage from ingesting gluten and, if not identified or managed correctly, Coeliac disease can be a precursor to cancer.
The refrain from those I tell about my new medically-necessitated gluten-free diet is always something like, “At least you have so many gluten-free options now!”
And although there is never a good time to have a food allergy, they have a point: growing awareness of food allergies has led to greater choice for once-marginalised sufferers. Shelves are stocked with lactose-free nut milks, gluten-free beers and nut-free biscuits; many markets include dedicated ‘free-from’ sections to peruse as you do your weekly shop.
In the UK, the ‘free-from’ market has ballooned more than 133% over the last five years and was estimated at £837m ($1.01bn) in 2018. The ‘free-from’ boom has even crept into popular culture, with treasured UK TV show The Great British Bake Off featuring gluten- and dairy-free challenges from nearly the beginning.