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'If I do break my diet I would be very sick" - living with coeliac disease isn't easy

We spoke to two people whose lives changed as a result of their diagnosis.

Image: Shutterstock/Eskemar

AOIFE O’NEILL RARELY eats out.

She found that the risk of getting sick after a meal in a restaurant wasn’t worth it.

Five years ago, when she was travelling in Australia, Aoife found she couldn’t eat a lot of food without feeling sick.

She was finding it hard to keep food down and was losing a lot of weight as a result.

When she got home, Aoife (28) went to get blood tests and found out that she had a very high intolerance to gluten.

At age 23, she was diagnosed with coeliac disease.

“It was a total life change,” says Aoife.

I just can’t go near [gluten]. Any sort of cross contamination and I would be very, very sick.

FB_IMG_1463674278229 Aoife O'Neill Source: Aoife O'Neill

Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a condition where a person’s lower intestine is hyper-sensitive to gluten.

It is thought to affect about one in 100 people, while women are two to three times more likely to develop the condition.

Gluten is a protein that is found in four types of cereal:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Oats

Many commonly eaten foods contain at least one of these ingredients, and so foods in their typically sold form that coeliacs need to avoid include:

  • Pasta
  • Cakes
  • Bread
  • Many store-bought soups and sauces (where wheat is used as a thickener)
  • Crackers
  • Beer

Depending on how intolerant a person is to gluten, their reaction to any of these foods (as sold in their typical form) can range from mild stomach discomfort, to bloating to much worse abdominal problems.

shutterstock_420068473 Examples of foods with gluten Source: Shutterstock/ChiccoDodiFC

“If I do break my diet I would be very sick,” says Aoife.

I would be vomiting or I would have fatigue. My skin would come out in a rash and I would be very, very tired.

Aoife’s condition only manifested itself in her early-20s. However, often people can be suffering for years with coeliac disease completely undiagnosed.

For Cavan chef Gearóid Lynch, decades of cramps, bloating and stomach discomfort left him none-the-wiser to what was wrong with his body.

“Growing up in the 70s and 80s in rural Ireland, no one had ever heard of coeliac disease or gluten intolerance,” Gearóid.

Gluten-free consultant Gearóid Lynch

Many medical conditions that were based on dietary intolerances were not commonly known or understood, even by medical professionals.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of my parents, my condition went undiagnosed throughout my childhood.

The co-owner and head chef at the The Olde Post Inn in Cavan, it wasn’t until 11 years after Gearóid opened the restaurant that he was eventually diagnosed with the disease.

“Suddenly the meals that I loved and regularly enjoyed with my family were off the menu,” says Gavin.

On the one hand it was a huge relief to finally understand what had been wrong with me since childhood but as a chef it was devastating and it felt like my world was crumbling around me.

The menu

Since her diagnosis, Aoife has all but stopped eating out.

While an increasing awareness of coeliac disease has prompted many restaurants to offer some gluten-free options on their menu – Aoife has found that the risk of cross-contamination is too high.

Frequently, Aoife says that bits of food containing gluten will get into her food while it is being prepared in the kitchen – this will often leave her feeling sick, so she’s decided the risk isn’t worth it.

“I have been sick good few times since finding out about my condition,” says Aoife.

But I tend now not to go out to eat in restaurants and mostly prepare my own food.

For Gearóid, whose entire life revolves around food, his diagnosis came as a big blow.

At first, he was distraught, but after reading up on the condition and starting to experiment with recipes – he found that he was able to prepare and enjoy gluten-free versions of all of his old favourite recipes.

9780717169900_full The cover of Gearóid's book Source: Gill Books

“Since my diagnosis there has not been one day when I have felt unwell – life was transformed,” he says.

On the back of his diagnosis, Gearóid has published his first cookbook: My Gluten Free Kitchen.

Both Aoife and Gearóid say that educating yourself to the various food options that are available is very important.

“It has gotten better over the past number of years,” says Aoife.

“A lot of places have come on with separating preparing areas and cookers for gluten and gluten-free foods,” says Aoife.

It’s definitely getting better but there’s still a good way to go.

You can visit it Aoife’s blog about living a gluten-free life here.  

Gearóid’s book can be purchased here

For more information on coeliac disease visit The Coeliac Society’s website

Read: 5 reasons you shouldn’t try a gluten-free diet

Read: Are you a coeliac? This new pill could make eating gluten a piece of cake

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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