by Amy Pozzar
These days, it seems the focus of a ‘healthy’ diet is based on what all the celebs are doing, what looks good on Instagram and what sounds good on Facebook. Unfortunately, this obsession with fad diets has resulted in people following trends that aren’t necessarily suited to their body’s needs. And so the profound ignorance to food intolerances were born!
A particular group of people who constantly have to endure both misunderstanding and scrutiny for their diet are those who suffer with coeliac disease. A condition which requires approximately 340,000 Australians alone to eat a gluten-free diet to prevent damage to their small intestine and the absorption of nutrients. While symptoms vary, the consumption of gluten can leave some sufferers in extreme pain with cramps, uncomfortable bloating, nausea, fatigue and vomiting, just to name a few.
While it is within every person’s rights to adopt any diet they choose, it is important to remember some people have to adhere to a specific diet because it is crucial to their very existence, and is not merely a choice. To help you avoid sounding insensitive, here are four nifty tips on what not to say to someone with coeliac disease.
1 “I don’t know how you survive without eating bread/pizza/pasta” (or any other delicious foods traditionally containing gluten)
Although this may be your way of empathising with someone who has coeliac disease, it’s more like rubbing salt in the wound. Yes, they would really love to enjoy all the things you do without a second thought, but unfortunately their body just doesn’t allow for it. Don’t rub it in, and try not to tack on that dreaded “Oh but gluten-free alternatives taste terrible!” comment.
2 “How allergic are you? Surely a tiny bit won’t hurt?”
As much as those with coeliac disease wish that a tiny bit of gluten didn’t hurt, it’s often not the case. Even people with asymptomatic coeliac disease are risking internal damage when consuming gluten, so please be mindful not to force any foods or restaurants upon someone with a gluten intolerance.
3 “At least you won’t put on weight if you don’t eat gluten, you must be so healthy, maybe I should try it!”
Not only is assuming the diet is easy to follow with hidden health benefits annoying for sufferers to hear, it also trivialises dietary intolerances and ignores their struggles. As mentioned earlier, when people adopt a gluten-free diet (or any other intolerance) just to lose weight or follow a trend, those with coeliac disease and their diet are not taken seriously. This can mean running the risk of consuming potentially harmful foods (and a lot of pent-up frustration!).
4 “You can’t eat anything! Are you becoming anorexic?”
Having dietary intolerances is already enough reason to be extra cautious when eating outside of the home, and being accused of having an eating disorder leaves sufferers feeling like a burden and even more isolated, which in turn can potentially trigger EDs. So please excuse people with coeliac disease if they don’t jump at the chance of possibly consuming their allergen- it’s just a natural survival instinct!
Be that person who doesn’t emphasise the difficulty of coeliac disease and instead offers the support that those affected need. If you’re hosting an event or joining a friend for food, all you need to do is make sure gluten free options are available. Understand they can’t have any gluten whatsoever, and be vigilant about it. It’s not their choice, nor their desire to be ‘difficult’. Think of coeliac disease like a peanut allergy. You wouldn’t pressure a child with a peanut allergy to just have a little peanut butter on toast, or get them to use the knife you just spread your peanut butter with – because it could kill them or cause them great harm. It’s similar for Coeliacs. No matter how much gluten they ingest, whether through an entire pastry, an ingredient in a sauce, or a shared butter knife with crumbs on it, it all counts and contributes harm to their body. You may not directly see it, but they usually feel it.
The bottom line:
The most important part is not what you say at all, but how you listen. Learn more about Coeliac disease and understand how you can help. The person with diagnosed coeliac disease who has been to see experts about how to manage is your greatest tool in understanding how it all works – so listen and take them seriously.
Trust us, they’ll love you for it!
Amy Pozzar is a Communications and Media Studies graduate, a rabid foodie and an aspiring writer. She calls Wollongong home but loves to globe-trot at any given chance.