gluten free white rice flour in a jar

Despite not having coeliac disease, or suffering from any food-related intolerances, it’s still touched my life.

My friend Deborah was diagnosed with coeliac disease 12 years ago. We met at catering college in 2004, and she was always happy to chat about to anyone about her condition when questioned. Because we worked with food everyday, her intolerance was very obvious. We always admired how well she handled her condition, having to trust others’ opinions and taste buds. It kind of became her thing – and one birthday our friend Hannah presented Deb with a hand-drawn “gluten-free girl” superhero comic. That kind of humour in the face of intolerance meant I knew she would be my go-to girl for this article.

Doctors, tests and “What? No pizza?!”

“I was 12 when I first went to the doctor, but I didn’t have the full set of symptoms…” says Deborah. “I was feeling really tired, had stomach pains and sickness.”

Initially it was thought that she was suffering from digestion problems and difficulties swallowing, but after myriad tests and a biopsy she was diagnosed with coeliac disease.

Coeliac disease is the result of intolerance to gluten, and the only way to treat it is to cut all gluten from one’s diet. The symptoms and reactions are quite different from an allergy, when your body goes into immediate shock; Deborah likens the feeling to food poisoning, where your body doesn’t react until a few hours after ingesting gluten. Varied reactions such as sickness, bloating and severe stomach cramps make coeliac disease more difficult to pinpoint, and as a result it can take years to diagnose.

“Being told at the age of 14 you can’t eat pizza, cakes – the stuff you like to eat at that age – was pretty tough. I was assigned a dietician for a few sessions to help me learn what I was allowed to eat and how to cope.”

Deborah was given gluten-free bread, pizza bases, and flour on prescription, along with books and leaflets. At that time, good-quality and tasty gluten-free products were hard to find in supermarkets, and her prescription offerings were far from inspiring. Thankfully you can now find a great selection of gluten-free products in most stores, from big brands to exciting independent labels. High street restaurants are also catching on to the importance of catering for gluten-intolerant people properly, and rightly so.

“It’s almost become trendy to eat gluten free,” she says, “and I’m not complaining!”

So much help and so much food!

The charity Coeliac UK offers a plethora of information, advice and really useful tools, including a new “gluten-free on the move” app to help you with shopping, and provides a food and drink directory for eating out and checking food labels. They are also working on an accreditation scheme with caterers to educate and help them provide good-quality gluten-free food, emphasising the importance of avoiding cross contamination. You can join as a member here, and if you’re from the US, the Celiac Disease Foundation is doing great work too.

Experimenting and loving what you eat

Cooking for a day-to-day diet is quite straightforward. You can make pretty much anything and tailor it to being gluten free. Obviously some recipes need a little more experimenting with than others, but it’s fun. Deborah leans more towards looking online for inspiration – you can check out our amazing Gluten-free section, and I’m a big fan of the hilarious and super-talented April Peveteaux, and the blog Gluten-free on a Shoestring.

It has recently been discovered that oats are safe for people with coeliac disease to eat, which means a whole new group of recipes for those affected by the disease to enjoy! Deborah is particularly happy about having flapjacks back in her life. Oats contain avenin, which is a similar protein to gluten, but fine for most coeliac disease sufferers to digest. It is advised that you go for uncontaminated oats, which have not been produced in the same place as wheat, barley and rye, and most brands are certified to show this.

Even travelling abroad isn’t too much of a problem any more, especially in Europe. Larger supermarkets are well stocked with a good selection of gluten-free items. Deborah does advise that if you can, check the area you’re going to and use your common sense. You might want to take a packet of pasta with you just in case you are heading out into the middle of nowhere.

Working in a world of usually gluten-filled food, Deborah learnt to cope. This grounding encouraged her to study more about food technology and product development, using her intolerance to her advantage at university with various research projects.

Here are some tips if you have recently discovered you have coeliac disease:

  • If you have not been diagnosed with coeliac disease but are suffering from the symptoms then go to your doctor – it can take time and tests to get to the root of the problem, so the sooner you get checked the better.
  • Use the resources offered to you by your doctor. Deborah recommends making the most of prescribed ingredients if they are offered to you, because you can trust them.
  • Become a member of Coeliac UK. They are there to help and make life easier and happier. It does cost a small fee to join, but this money goes to towards research and creating new resources for members.
  • Experiment with recipes and enjoy cooking. Gluten-free recipes are for everybody, and you’ll be surprised by how much you can actually eat. For lots of delicious ideas, try our gorgeous gluten-free section.
  • Don’t be scared to eat out in restaurants – call ahead if you want to and chat to your waiter when you arrive so you’re happy with what’s on offer.

coeliac disease

Check out our brilliant essentials for a gluten-free pantry, too – you’ll never need another guide to staying stocked up!

About the author

Pip Spence

Pip is a junior stylist in Jamie’s food team. She spends her life following Jamie around, testing his recipes and helping out on shoots. She is addicted to Instagram (@pipparoo_spence), fascinated by food history, and obsessed with homemade ice cream. Mostly she writes about store cupboard heroes, using up leftovers and hearty comfort food.

Pip Spence