Dr Strangeloaf: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Corn

You’re a coeliac, Laura.’

‘I’m a what?!’

Gawping incredulously at my GP, his stream of indecipherable medical jargon soaring straight over my head, I sprang to life at the mention of one word only: ‘DID YOU JUST SAY, NO CAKE?!’

Visions of biscuit tins being ruthlessly emptied and plates of triple chocolate muffins fiendishly snatched away from me flooded my mind. An unfamiliar man, seated rather ominously behind me, sounded a slight, forced cough by way of announcing that I was now entirely at his disposal.  This was my first encounter with the dreaded Dietician: a fearsome creature who possessed the seemingly super-human ability to sniff out when I’d so much as thought about smuggling that Jammie Dodger.  

If, like me, you had no idea that coeliac was even a thing, then do not despair: you’re far from the only one. Without turning this into an anatomy lecture, the small intestine of a coeliac patient exposed to gluten (a tiny protein found mainly in wheat) basically ends up attacking itself, and so the consequences of someone with coeliac eating gluten can be pretty nasty in the long term – malnutrition, osteoporosis, and in some cases, cancer. Many wait years for a diagnosis and endure terrible sickness immediately after the slightest contact with gluten; curiously, I have no direct external symptoms which makes me what is officially termed a ‘silent coeliac’ (no, that’s not the title of a low budget horror movie).  There is no cure as yet for coeliac disease and so patients have no choice but to avoid gluten in their diets at all costs to minimise the damage – this includes products such as bread, cakes, pasta, beer, biscuits, certain sauces… The list goes on.

But these days, as you’ve probably noticed, not everyone you hear asking ‘Can I get that macaroni gluten-free?’ or ‘Do you have wheat-less waffles?’ actually has coeliac disease; many don’t even suffer from a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, which would mean that contact with gluten results in illness or discomfort.  Despite there being no evidence that wiping gluten from your diet will actually benefit you in any way, for some bizarre reason it has now become almost trendy to follow a coeliac’s diet. Let me assure you, for anyone with a perfectly functioning digestive system, a gluten-free caramel shortcake is no healthier than a normal one – in fact, it probably has way more sugar to compensate for the impaired taste. I suspect the reason gluten-free has caught on is because many of the foods we associate with it are typically the big culprits for weight gain (bread, biscuits and the like).  Yet the fact that gluten is in these products doesn’t actually amount to much for the average healthy human being – it’s the fat content, the calories and the sugar that matter.

However, the upside to this craze is that gluten-free options are expanding every day for people who genuinely need them. Throughout the early days of my diagnosis, many coeliac-friendly versions of the snacks I used to know and love left my taste buds feeling sad, suspicious and generally confused about what just happened.  More recently however, the majority of restaurants and cafes offer tasty gluten-free menus or at least alternative options (T.G.I Fridays, Taco Mazama, Starbucks to name but a few). Even our very own university stocks a pretty decent gluten-free sandwich range as well as brownies, and we hope that a wider array of products is in store for students here.  Wholefoods Market in Giffnock is a sacred shrine for the gluten-free, and a pilgrimage here is a must if you’re willing to splash some cash – expect gluten free beer (!!!) along with microwave meals, cake mixes and everything in between.

Yet it is precisely the expense of going gluten-free that is the thing which now irks me most, for whilst the range of products you can find in the ‘free from’ sections in most major supermarkets is increasing all the time, so too it seems is the price (£4 for one M&S sandwich, I mean really?!). Nevertheless, a certain amount of staple supplies are made available to coeliac patients on prescription, and there remains an increasingly popular Coeliac UK charity striving to source the best recipes, the most reliable suppliers and generally support those struggling with the diet.

In the immortal words of Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Coeliac, you’re breaking my heart, you’re shaking my confidence daily’. That was, in fact, a joke, and not merely because that talented twosome actually address a woman named Cecilia. In truth, the diet doesn’t bother me half as much as it used to.  Though I’ll never understand why anyone would want to voluntarily ditch the doughnuts without good reason, the burden for coeliacs and those suffering from gluten intolerance or sensitivity has certainly been lifted in recent years by the popularity of eating gluten-free, and the future looks bright. There have even been whispers from afar of a pill to eradicate the negative effects of gluten for those who need it – whether this will come to fruition or not, it’s at least positive to know that now it is in the public eye, coeliac is refusing to be ignored.

[Laura O’Donnell]

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