Gluten-free ‘lifestyle coeliacs’ trivialise my condition

Coeliac Ita O’Kelly feels ambushed by the ‘worried well’ who jump on the gluten-free bandwagon

I have popped in to Marks & Spencer like many thousands of others, seeking inspiration for a quick dinner. I am stopped in my tracks. I find myself staring uncontrollably at a square dinner that claims it is suitable for me to eat. It is only after a few moments that I realise the enormity of what I am looking at.

There is an entire chill cabinet displaying dinners in square boxes that are all gluten free.

I am so taken aback that, after looking at all the normal looking food – lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese, quiche Lorraine – that I buy nothing. But on my way to the check out with my tub of olives, I realise that I have experienced something momentous, for me that is. I feel normal again after almost a decade as a coeliac where nausea inducing chocolate brownies have haunted me everywhere.

Back then being a coeliac was a quiet and very lonely gig where scratch cooking was de rigueur. When you see people like me fumble for a biscuit in my handbag, it’s not because I am mean. It is because I have so very often had to rely on a cappuccino to keep me going.


But now, going gluten free, voluntarily that is, is in vogue with a vengeance.

One Dublin cafe-owner who has angered coeliacs by suggesting customers should have to show medical proof of the condition before they are served gluten-free food.

Clearly the White Moose Cafe are not really serious about requiring customers to actually produce a doctor’s letter to prove if they are indeed a coeliac. However, they are raising a valid point. Lifestyle coeliacs can be a serious nuisance to restaurants. Such people generate extra work and added costs for restaurateurs, when the truth is that they do not absolutely require a gluten-free (GF) diet.

I have watched in restaurants as young women loudly cross-examine the waiter about food ingredients and insist on menu changes to suit their chosen GF dietary requirements, only to devour the gluten-laden dessert, because they can.

These attention seeking health zealots – so called lifestyle coeliacs – do not speak for me. They trivialise my condition. Those purporting to require a GF diet who are not coeliacs, are quite frankly, nothing more than the worried well with time and money on their hands. They make my life difficult and they make me mad.

Let me tell you, having to forgo the entire contents of the boulangerie when in France or the luscious pasta and pizza while visiting Italy is profoundly difficult. Not being able to taste the pasta I am cooking for my daughter is challenging.

I dread having to ask in a restaurant what is suitable for me as a coeliac. This means a total and complete allergy to any gluten whatsoever. I have a medical condition. It is not a lifestyle choice. Savvy restaurants now ask: “Are you a coeliac” . And I say yay to that.

Being glutened means I lose three days out of my life and even lose my vision temporarily.

On one level, it seems this whole obsessing about what you eat is more of the same narcissistic modern culture of me with a capital M. It’s yet another opportunity to dwell upon yourself. Now you can photograph your food as well as yourself.

I meet young people – well-heeled, often photogenic – who choose to set up blogs about GF food and become obsessed about chia seeds or rhubarb. Goodness knows there’s a whole lifetime to wait before you need to give your attention to something as profoundly uninteresting as rhubarb.

In the meantime, if you spot me discreetly asking what might be suitable for an awkward customer like me, don’t look over in my direction with annoyance. I am not a GF blogger planning to make a mint from a cookbook that promises to cure all ills and make you beautiful as well.

A bit of sympathy would be great.

And if you see me in the supermarket squeezing a few loaves of bread to see which might be vaguely palatable, please, whatever you do, don’t start telling me that you think you may have issues with gluten. Tell your health professional instead.

In the meantime I am waiting for someone to create gluten-free bread that you would get up in the night for...