SUMMERSIDE — It’s the glue that keeps countless foods together.
But that ‘glue’ is poison to Kensington’s Candace Woodside.
Woodside, like an estimated one in 133 Canadians, has celiac disease, a medical condition in which the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged by gluten, resulting in the inability of the body to absorb nutrients.
In 2010, the active, outgoing and, up until then, healthy woman started feeling so ill that she worried something was seriously wrong.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” said the 27-year-old who works in events management. “The way celiac symptoms manifest themselves are not pleasant and it’s not in any scope of normalcy.”
At the time, Woodside was working in a high-stress job, was on the road constantly, travelling across the country, and eating out daily in restaurants.
“The first thing that happened was I went to have a beer one night. Beer, of course, is full of barley, hops and wheat. I couldn’t even get through the neck of it without feeling violently ill.”
Woodside dropped about 30 pounds in a month. It was her mother who convinced her to try cutting gluten out of her diet.
“When I stopped eating it, the day after I felt normal,” she said. “It was weird because I was in pain a good five months before that.”
A doctor’s visit and blood tests confirmed it was celiac disease.
Now, Woodside sees the diagnosis as a positive, something that prompted her to start eating healthy and exercise more.
“Everyone says it must suck. I say, no, if I eat a piece of bread it sucks. It’s a lifestyle change,” she added. “I never wander off because the payback is so awful. There’s no point in making yourself sick. It forced me to become healthy.”
For Reasha Walsh, cutting out gluten was something she did before being diagnosed.
She had issues since childhood with lactose and often felt unwell, suffering from unusual rashes, sore stomach and headaches, all symptoms of gluten intolerance.
Looking back, Walsh feels she had celiac disease even then.
Her sister’s celiac diagnosis prompted her family to cut gluten from their diets.
Since, Walsh, her younger brother and father have been diagnosed with the disease.
“It’s weird. You live your whole life not feeling good and you get used to that,” said the mother-to-be. “I didn’t actually start to feel really better until the gluten was absolutely gone from by diet. We called it poisoning. It’s like killing yourself slowly.”
Walsh found the gluten-free diet difficult at first.
“You spend god knows how long just figuring out what is making you sick,” said Walsh. “It’s in everything.”
Unlike when Dianne Windsor was diagnosed in 1982, there are countless products on the market today for those on a gluten-free diet.
“Now, restaurants are all on board and you can go into the store and buy all kinds of products,” said Windsor, who is on the executive of the P.E.I. chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association.
Thirty years ago, one in 2,500 Canadians was diagnosed with the disease.
With its prevalence, the disease is now on the radar of more doctors.
“It happens at any age,” said Windsor. “My mother was 78 when she was diagnosed.”
Health P.E.I. dietician Bernadette Campbell said celiac disease and gluten intolerance, which has no cure, can be treated entirely by diet.
The safest foods are fruits, vegetables, fresh meats — whole foods, said Campbell.
While prepackaged gluten-free foods are an option they can be high in sodium, fat and carbohydrates, said the dietician.
“I’ve seen gluten-free hamburger buns that are 60 grams of carbs, which is the equivalent to four pieces of bread,” added Campbell.
People with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease are prone to nutrient deficiencies and have difficulties getting enough fibre in their diet. Grains like quinoa, which is gluten-free, is a high-fibre option as are most fruits and vegetables.
Having a balanced diet, as is the case for everyone, is key.
Windsor helps those newly diagnosed learn how to read labels and find gluten-free foods that are healthy and meet their dietary need.
When in doubt about product, simply pick up the phone and call the manufacturer
“It’s a diet for life,” said Windsor. “It has to be 100 per cent gluten free in order to be healthy.”
- Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, triticale and barley.
- It is the gluten in flour that helps bread and other baked goods bind and prevents crumbling.
- Gluten is widely used in the production of processed and packaged foods.
- There is no cure for celiac disease. Treatment is done through following an entirely gluten-free diet.
- Symptoms include: anemia, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, cramps and bloating, irritability.
- In some cases, intense burning and an itching rash are present.
- Diagnosis is done through blood screening and a small bowel biopsy.
- Celiacs must be alert to hidden sources of gluten such as HVP/HPP (hydrolyzed/plant protein), malt, spelt, kamut and certain drug products.
- The P.E.I. chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association provides peer counselling in Summerside on the last Thursday of the month in the community room at Sobeys at 6:30 p.m. A celiac meeting takes place Monday at 7 p.m. at Trinity United Church in Summerside.
- The association’s website — www.celiacpei.ca — has a list of gluten-free friendly places to eat across the province, stores where gluten-free products can be purchased, information on upcoming meetings and a list of updated gluten-free products.