Looking back, I think I first started noticing coeliac-type symptoms in my mid-teens, not that I then knew anything about coeliac disease! I felt very moody (pretty normal for a teenager, you might say) but also frequently lethargic to the point that putting on my shoes was a bit of an ordeal and took some planning. I would also feel bloated and looked about 6 months pregnant after each meal. I’d be so stuffed after having toast for breakfast I wouldn’t feel hungry until evening. And then there was the attractive skin condition and the, er, time spent in the loo. 

It’s been about 15 years since I self-diagnosed with coeliac disease while I was living in Asia and 10 years since a more formal diagnosis. When I say "self-diagnosed" I should be more accurate and say that actually, it was a new friend at the time who took one look at me and said, “you do know you’re allergic to something don’t you?” Gazing into my eyes* (not, presumably, lovingly but as they were always red with large black shadows) he said, try cutting out wheat. If that doesn’t help move onto milk. He then gave me a list to work through.

Starting the next day I cut out the obvious wheaty culprits – bread and pasta (I wasn’t yet ready to ditch beer) and within a day or two more started to feel like a whole new person! It was amazing. I had an appetite, energy and my brain suddenly worked (sort of). My skin improved too and I ditched all the semi-useless creams the GPs gave me. However, after a few weeks, the symptoms started creeping in again and it became clear to me that not only would I have to give up beer (!) but that there was probably lots of gluten hiding in all sorts of other, less obvious, foods. Then began a many years-long process of figuring out all the products I had to watch out for and, as time went by and I became more and more sensitive, honing in on some really obscure things. Out went soy sauce, breakfast cereals, Oxo, southern fried oven chips, oatcakes and even barley water squash… 

After many mistakes, misreading of labels and those times when I just thought ‘to hell with it, I’m having some pizza’, I learnt to be stricter and stricter as it wasn’t worth it. The more sensitive to foods I became the worse the symptoms were, even with teeny tiny amounts of gluten. It took me long enough to learn this but getting my family on board took even longer. They’re wonderful now but there were years of me questioning my relatives on every ingredient in a dish and double-checking their packets. I’ve even gone through my dad’s bins to find ingredients lists! Not a great way to endear yourself to people.

What’s life like now? Well, with some basic cooking skills (I can wield a knife and follow a recipe but a master chef I am not), the ability to closely read food labels and understand ingredients I can quite cheerfully eat almost anything. Eating out is easier and easier with some restaurants being reliable and trustworthy, with special menus for ‘difficult’ punters like me. And while I used to feel embarrassed ‘making a fuss’ in an eatery, I’m now of the view that they really need to be prepared for people like me – it’s not rocket science and there’s plenty of help available for caters. Allergies, in particular, can be life-threatening and several deaths in recent years have been caused by food outlets not doing what they should. I don’t think we should have to point out that food providers are legally obliged not to harm or kill people!

Travelling abroad has also got easier as other nations have not only caught up with the UK but have far exceeded it. Pre-pandemic I was lucky to visit Italy. “Italy? You mad? What are you gonna eat there?” Imagine how happy I was to find, in a tiny village nestled in the mountains, not only gluten-free pasta dishes but also gluten-free pizza. And I can testify both were delicious! And finally shopping for foods… This is also improving with better labelling on items and ever-growing ‘free-from' sections in large supermarkets. And the silver lining for me… there are fewer junk foods I can have so I’ve become healthier too (Let’s not forget the gluten-free beer though - Ed.).

So, being diagnosed with coeliac disease might not be the best news you get but – with professional and family support and learning – we can pretty much consume all our favourite foods from before! 

*Please note that gazing into someone’s eyes is not an established diagnostic tool. If you or someone close to you has concerns about allergies, intolerances or coeliac disease please speak to a health care professional.