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CELIAC DISEASE: Learning to eat all over again
This version of the story contains corrections to the originally filed version.
Almost five years ago, James Sharp faced a crisis of diet.
Doctors had helped pin down his constant stomach problems and adverse reactions to certain foods to celiac disease, in combination with gastroesophageal reflux disease, sometimes known as acid reflux.
They told him his body was not absorbing enough nutrients out of his food, in essence leaving him malnourished – the hallmark symptom of celiac disease.
“I literally crawled up and down the stairs, I was that sick and I was that malnourished,” the Langford resident recalls.
Once he knew what the problem was, he switched to a gluten-free diet overnight, avoiding any product with grains and those containing gluten proteins of other kinds.
“At first it seemed like a bit of a chore – what was I going to eat? But I gained 10 pounds immediately and I was able to go up and down the stairs,” he says.
In the beginning Sharp, a lifelong lover of foods of all kinds including pizza and cereal, wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of eating foods he considered to be “bland,” or those with a “ricey” texture.
Not one to stand by idly and watch her hubby suffer further, his wife, Helen, began devouring as much information as she could on gluten-free recipes and other food options for celiacs.
Having completely cleared out the cupboards upon hearing the diagnosis – even the smallest amounts of glutens can cause almost immediate pain for a person with celiac disease – she went to work cooking up and baking items that James could eat.
Despite not needing to eat gluten-free herself, she has accepted her husband’s dietary requirements almost as her own, choosing to consume no gluten at home.
“It’s a combination, because obviously when you’re baking with gluten-free ingredients, you’re not using just one type of flour, you’re using tapioca, corn starch, brown rice flour or white rice flour,” she says. “I use quinoa flour in my carrot cake and my brownies.”
During the couple’s culinary journey, Helen has created recipes that have earned her accolades in the community. A longtime baker who learned the skill from her mother and grandmother, she took first place at the Luxton Fair for her carrot cake and chocolate chip cookies, while her gluten-free cupcakes were named best in show.
The demand for her baked desserts, from people at work and elsewhere in their social network, led James to suggest that Helen sell them to the public.
For the past several weeks they’ve had a stall at the Goldstream Station Market. Through word-of-mouth and return customers, their products are selling increasingly well.
“I think there are a lot of people who come to the market who are looking for gluten-free products,” Helen says. “One woman had just been diagnosed the week before and was surprised that she could eat anything on our table.”
Not surprisingly, James is her best salesperson, given his celiac experience and the fact he’s Helen’s recipe guinea pig.
His sensitivity to foods his body can’t handle has heightened since he cut out gluten. He has basically given up eating out, he says, since even restaurants that claim to have gluten-free options on their menu have a hard time avoiding cross-contamination.
“The success that we’ve had has just been phenomenal,” James says, adding they stress to people the products are gluten-free.
“I’ve had literally three or four ladies say, ‘I make the best carrot cake,’ and they’ve tried (Helen’s) and said that is the best carrot cake I’ve ever had.”
With strict guidelines laid down by Island Health for anyone selling gluten-free products to the public, Helen has just received approval to sell her breads at the market.
James, a longtime bread lover who is thrilled with the fact he is able to eat and enjoy yet another of his wife’s recipes, expects the new product to sell well. “People stand there for quite some time and tell us their story,” he says of people either diagnosed celiac or having various food intolerances. “That’s why we want to expand what we’re offering, because of what people are asking for.”
That demand, matching an international trend, makes the timing of their foray into the gluten-free market fortuitous.
Given the couple both work full-time on top of marketing their baked goods, James is somewhat concerned how much time they spend on this business sideline. At the end of the day, however, he credits his wife for working so hard to create foods he can eat without worry.
“I feel terrific now. I can eat well and that food can be digested,” he says.
“I didn’t know what was wrong for years and years, and I think back to my reactions to food and think I was sick back then. I count myself lucky (to be diagnosed within a few years), because the average celiac diagnosis is about 12 years.”
Figuring out celiac-friendly diet takes time and patience
Emilia Campbell of Saanich discovered Helen Sharp’s gluten-free baked products recently at the Goldstream Station Market.
Diagnosed with celiac disease about a year ago, she’s still sorting out her new dietary lifestyle. Conversations with Helen and James Sharp, her celiac-diagnosed husband, have helped her understand what kinds of foods are safe, Campbell says.
“I still haven’t overcome my anger about my change in eating,” she says. Social gatherings have been the toughest for her. “If a whole bunch of friends are over, you feel relegated. With so many social interactions around food, it’s difficult to adjust.”
She recalls attending her husband’s family Christmas dinner shortly after her diagnosis last year and feeling like an outcast. “There was nothing, nothing I could eat. Five hours of no eating and all I could have was a pop. The turkey stuffing had gluten, so I couldn’t eat any of it. You have to be very careful.”
Campbell is the only one in her home who is celiac – her husband and daughter eat differently. To avoid contamination, she has her own microwave, her own pots. She admits to not being a good cook before, but now has to prepare her own meals separately.
She belongs to the Victoria chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association (victoriaceliac.org) and has received a list of what foods to avoid, where to buy celiac friendly foods locally and what local restaurants offer full gluten-free menus.
“I’ve read a lot of books and articles and definitely educated my self on the subject, I think,” she says. “I’m finding when it comes to what is healthy for you, it’s the basics.”
– Don Descoteau