This article was written by specialist gastroenterology dietitian – Cristian Costas
This article has been written to raise awareness of Coeliac Disease during Coeliac Awareness Week starting 9th May 2022. People with this condition can often get judged and misunderstood due to a lack of awareness. This article will provide some key tips to help people be more understanding and supportive towards people with coeliac disease.
#1: Don’t label people with coeliac disease as ‘fussy’
When people with coeliac disease are asking for gluten free food and asking about how things are cooked or prepared, they are not doing this to call attention. They are doing this because the gluten free diet is the only treatment for their medical condition and they have to essentially avoid less than a crumb of gluten every time they eat in order to avoid symptoms and damage to their small intestine. If gluten free food comes into contact with gluten through the cooking process (i.e. using the same cooking oil, chopping boards, shared toasters and shared cooking utensils), this is still enough to cause problems. By asking about how food is cooked they are just ensuring food that is served is actually safe for them to eat.
#2: Ask how you can adapt things if they are coming over to eat
If you don’t have coeliac disease it can be quite hard to understand what the condition entails and how to prepare food safely for somebody with the condition. It can be hard to know what ingredients to be aware of and how to avoid cross-contamination. This is why it is always worth discussing things beforehand with the person who has coeliac disease. It can make things easier and they can explain how things can be adapted or they may prefer to just bring some of their own food to make things easier. This prior discussion will avoid embarrassment and disappointment and contribute toward a much more pleasant and inclusive experience.
#3: Give them first choice when deciding where to eat out
Eating out with coeliac disease is unfortunately not easy. Whilst more and more restaurants are becoming aware of gluten and starting to provide more gluten free menus, not that many restaurants actually have well trained staff and well equipped facilities that guarantee no gluten cross-contamination for certain foods in their kitchens. This can become quite limiting for people with coeliac disease, because it means that being sporadic with regards to eating out may at times result in them having little to no safe options when eating out. By bearing this in mind, it will always help to let the person with coeliac disease choose first so that everyone can relax and enjoy the meal together.
#4: Put yourself in their shoes
If we choose judgement rather than compassion towards people with coeliac disease, we fail to appreciate what it is like to be in their shoes. Living with coeliac disease can increase food-related anxiety due to the risk of getting unwell with certain foods and it can also limit quality of life by having to follow a restrictive diet for life. Fear of accidentally eating gluten can stop people from eating out and travelling, as well as socialising with friends and family. I would encourage anyone to either get a snapshot of what it could be like or take some time to imagine it. Imagine having to check the food label of every food you eat, having to always check that friends and family are not contaminating your food at home, as well as having to communicate your needs and check for safe options every time you eat out or order food in. Even if you do this, it will still only be a taste of what it is like to live with this condition. However it will help to understand some of the challenges, which in turn will help to become more supportive.
#5: Be open to learning more about coeliac disease
Whether you have a friend or family member with coeliac disease, or you serve food to people with coeliac disease in a cafe, bar or restaurant- learning more about coeliac disease will really help. Coeliac UK have some fantastic free resources on their website and they also offer training for restaurants that wan’t to get their gluten free accreditation to guarantee that people with coeliac disease can get safe options in their venue. Places with this accreditation tend to be visited by people with coeliac disease more often. However, if you commonly serve or prepare food for people with coeliac disease in a restaurant or in any setting, you can simply make a big difference to their experience (and to their day) by showing some empathy and some good awareness of coeliac disease.
I hope this article can raise more empathy towards people with coeliac disease, so that they can be better understood and in turn better supported to implement this life-long gluten free diet which can often be more challenging that what it may appear to be to many.