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Gluten-free life: 'It's disheartening when gluten-free diets are slammed by the media as a fad'

The nature of my coeliac disease means I am highly sensitive and cross-contamination with gluten is a huge risk for me, writes Aoife O’Neill.

Aoife O’Neill Coeliac Society of Ireland Ambassador

OVER SIX YEARS ago, at the age of 23, I boarded a plane to Australia to set off on what is now nearly a rite of passage for many young Irish people. I’d had my flights booked months in advance and had been looking forward to this adventure of a lifetime for what felt like forever.

The stress that usually comes with moving abroad and leaving family and friends behind, was added to with worries about my health. For a few months, I couldn’t shake off a constant bloated feeling. My energy levels had completely depleted, I had lost weight, and my skin had broken out in tiny white bumps.

Naively (in hindsight) I set my health worries aside and jetted off, only to be home a few months later after my health continued to deteriorate to the point where all I wanted was to be home in Cork.

Allergy testing

Growing up, I always suffered with sensitive skin and eczema. On my return home to Carrigtwohill from Australia, I decided to go for an allergy test, bringing along all of the various beauty and skincare products I used to see if any of them were the culprit.

The tester discovered I was allergic to wheat, and insisted I visit my GP for a full check-up and blood test. A few days later I was given the news that I had coeliac disease.

I had always been vaguely aware that coeliac disease was something to do with gluten, but I had no idea that all of my other health issues were also connected to coeliac disease. While it was a relief to finally get to the bottom of all my health problems, I was now faced with drastically overhauling my diet, and lifestyle.

My local GP was very supportive, and made me an appointment with a local dietician to help me to understand what foods I could eat, how to find out which foods had gluten or wheat in them, and how to better understand food labels while out doing my grocery shopping.

Adjusting to a new diet

It was a big adjustment to make after growing up without ever really paying attention to what exactly made up the food I was eating, but like everything, you soon get used to it and I learned the skills to find the right food to introduce into my diet. I even found a local French baker who was also coeliac and prepares fresh gluten-free bread.

The biggest challenge I found was preparing my food at home. The nature of my coeliac disease means I am highly sensitive and cross-contamination with gluten is a huge risk for me, with quite serious consequences.

None of my family members are coeliac, so to avoid any cross-contamination, I found that the best solution was to buy all of my own kitchen appliances and utensils: a new toaster, saucepans, chopping boards, and spatulas. I even made my own area in my home kitchen to prepare my food and I have my own cupboard with all of my gluten-free food.

Given the seriousness of my disease and the effort (and expense) I go to follow my gluten-free diet, it can be particularly disheartening when gluten-free diets are slammed by the media as being another fad.

While a lot of people choose to follow a gluten-free diet for their own personal health reasons without being diagnosed as coeliac, which I don’t have an issue with, it can also result in restaurants not taking coeliac disease as seriously as they should, increasing the risk of cross contamination.

Raising awareness by blogging

Being coeliac, you can also develop other health complications. I’m anaemic, so I’m low in iron, and as a coeliac it’s also hard to absorb nutrients, so I have to have regular blood tests. Bone deficiency is also a huge problem among coeliacs and so this means I also have to go for regular bone density scans.

I’m a qualified beauty therapist, but since I’ve being diagnosed as coeliac I’ve become passionate about raising awareness about the seriousness of coeliac disease and helping people who have been recently diagnosed to offer them support and advice. In 2015 I decided to set up my own blog to help newly diagnosed coeliacs in their first few weeks to find their feet while changing to a gluten free diet. I also help out with the Coeliac Society of Ireland, who are holding their Coeliac Awareness Week.

It’s six years since my diagnosis. I’m now 29, and have never felt better. My hair, nails and skin are glowing, and I’ve more energy than I’ve ever had. Being diagnosed as coeliac is a life changing experience and the disease deserves to be given the same respect as any other.

Aoife O’Neill, from Cork, is one of the Coeliac Society of Ireland’s “Faces of Coeliac Disease”. Coeliac Awareness Week, organised by the Coeliac Society of Ireland in partnership with SuperValu – will take place this year from 8th to 15th May. This year’s Coeliac Awareness Week will highlight that coeliac disease can occur at any stage in life, and is a life-long condition. 

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About the author:

Aoife O’Neill  / Coeliac Society of Ireland Ambassador

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