By Pam Dillon
Heather McIlquham is a typical teen. The bubbly, active 15-yearold is a Grade 10 student at South Carleton High School and when she’s not in class she enjoys jujitsu and swimming. She also likes to sing and hang out with her friends.
What’s not typical about Heather is that she has celiac disease (CD), an autoimmune disorder that is estimated to affect about one in 133 people. It’s triggered by gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. That’s why, when Heather heads out to eat with her friends, she’s very choosy about what she orders. If people with celiac disease eat pasta or bread, muffins or subs, their immune systems protest, causing damage to the lining of the small intestine and hindering its ability to absorb nutrients from food.
The challenge is that gluten is present and sometimes hidden in a wide variety of products. The “glue” used to bind and thicken many food items, it’s found in baked goods as well as packaged and processed foods. And not only is it an ingredient in everything from beer and malt vinegar to soy sauce and salad dressing, it may also exist in non-edible goods ranging from medications to toiletries.
When gluten is ingested, anemia, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue, cramps and bloating are some of the possible symptoms. They shouldn’t be ignored, because if celiac disease remains undiagnosed, eventual complications can include malnutrition, osteoporosis and nerve damage. The good news is it can be treated by following a strict gluten-free diet.
In Heather’s case, the disorder was identified quickly. “My nanny’s celiac,” she explains. Since celiac disease often runs in families, when she started experiencing symptoms, there was no delay in getting a blood test.
She was diagnosed the summer she turned 12. It was not a happy time, Heather admits. “I was really upset about it.” However, a lot has changed in the three years since then. For one thing, there’s been an explosion in demand for gluten-free options. As a result, new choices are appearing all the time, from gluten-free restaurant offerings to baked goods and product lines in supermarkets.
For another thing, Heather has transformed into a trailblazer and mentor for youths diagnosed with celiac. No longer upset, these days she’s full of enthusiasm for living gluten free. She’s also serving as a leader in Gluten Free Me, a club offered by an Ottawa café called The Lazy Pickle. The eatery, at 1809 Carling Avenue (at Broadview), not only provides a gluten free menu and retail area, it also offers this social and mutual support group. Geared to parents and kids who follow a gluten-free diet for a variety of health reasons, the club provides a means for people of all ages to connect and to share their recipes, stories, tips and resources. Owner Julie Simpson says one aim is to empower kids to meet their own health needs. They can learn to read ingredient lists, plan ahead before eating out, ask questions about foods and educate other people about what gluten-free means.
Truth is, not everybody follows a gluten-free diet for the same reasons.
Sometimes, there’s no gastrointestinal complaint at all. Instead, there’s a rash. Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), another type of celiac disease, causes blistering, itchy skin. There are also people who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Although tests show they do not have the autoimmune disorder, when they eat gluten they experience symptoms and when they eliminate it, they feel better.
Regardless of the reasons for going gluten-free, Heather says, “It can be pretty easy.” That’s why she’s a great mentor for kids involved in the Gluten Free Me club. Back when Heather used to babysit Julie Simpson’s kids, she was introduced to different options. Since the restaurant owner knew her sitter had been diagnosed with celiac disease, she would always leave gluten-free snacks around for the sitter to try out. “It’s cool sometimes to find new stuff you can eat,” the teen acknowledges now, adding these days there are lots of places she can go to eat. As for living gluten-free, she declares, “It’s only tough if you don’t have an open mind about it.”
Gluten Free Me is for kids aged four and up who are accompanied by their parents. Meetings take place on the first Saturday of the month from 10 to 11 a.m. For details, call 613 695-6001.