Clare Lawrence isn’t unusual in avoiding some of her favourite foods at this time of year.
But for her there are no sneaky treats or rewards of the Jaffa Cakes or pancakes that she loves.
Simply licking her fingers after touching some of those goodies would damage Clare’s health.
The 38-year-old mum-of-two has coeliac disease, an illness where the body’s immune system reacts to gluten found in food and attacks its own tissues.
Symptoms include stomach cramps, feeling sick, weakness and headaches. And if untreated it can lead to serious health problems.
There is no cure and the only treatment is an extremely strict diet free of gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
‘It’s no faddy diet, it’s very serious and it’s for life. If I eat enough of those things I’d start feeling really ill again. But even a crumb or licking my fingers after slicing a cake can cause damage, says the child care manager from Westbourne.
‘In a way that’s far more dangerous because I won’t necessarily feel the effects, but it will be doing me a lot of harm.’
Danger can come from Clare’s food simply touching products with gluten and the consequences are severe.
Damage caused by coeliac disease to the small intestine means patients don’t absorb enough nutrients and Clare already has the brittle bone disease osteoporosis caused by lack of calcium. This means her bones are more likely to break and she could end up in a wheelchair.
She’s keen to highlight the condition and a new campaign reveals that many people could have the disease and be undiagnosed.
TV’s Dr Chris Steele and his son, runner and Olympic hopeful Andrew, both have coeliac disease and want to encourage close relatives of people with the condition to be tested.
It is estimated that there are half-a-million people undiagnosed in the UK and the condition can be hereditary.
Chris, who is a health ambassador for charity Coeliac UK, says: ‘Many people are afraid and put off finding out if they have something wrong with them. But as someone who wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my 60s, I had already incurred damage to my gut which led to osteoporosis.’
Clare discovered she had the condition after having her first child, Harvey, seven years ago and believes it was laying dormant for years.
She started showing symptoms while she was carrying him end ended up weighing less than before her pregnancy.
She says: ‘It was just a very bad pregnancy, I was throwing up a lot and I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but thankfully Harvey was fine.’
But her problems continued.
‘All of my life I’d wanted to be a mum and I had my family and should have been overjoyed. But I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do with him.
‘I had stomach cramps, mouth ulcers and felt weak and depressed. I’d feel wobbly after getting out of the car, like I couldn’t stand up straight. It was so frustrating because I didn’t know what was happening.’
She says one of the problems for people with coeliac disease is the difficulty in being diagnosed.
The symptoms can relate to many things and, in Clare’s case, it took a year of blood tests and finally an endoscopy (internal examination) to confirm the condition.
‘When I went to the doctor I was so skinny and I just broke down,’ she recalls. ‘But I don’t think doctors are looking for it because it could be so many things. She was asking lots of questions and I think she was trying to diagnose me with post-natal depression. But everything else in my life was great.’
When Clare opened the letter revealing she had coeliac disease, she was tucking into spaghetti carbonara and sipping a bottle of beer – the worst things she could have been eating and drinking.
Cereals and foods made with flour, including bread, most sauces, pasta and cakes, are a big no for her. And while there are gluten-free versions available, these tend to be expensive.
Eating in restaurants is a hassle for Clare, although some chains, including Zizzi, have included gluten-free options on their menus.
But she has to be constantly vigilant.
‘I can have chips from McDonald’s. but not if they also have potato wedges on the menu because they have a seasoning on them and are cooked in the same fryers.’
The key is to cook as much as possible from scratch and, as Clare eats a lot of rice, her husband, Mark, has become pretty skilled at making Chinese meals.
And there is a positive side, she says. ‘Because I have to make as much as possible myself and know exactly what goes into my food, I probably eat quite healthily. But it really depends how organised I am. If I haven’t got round to getting all the salad bits for lunch I’ll end up having chocolate and crisps.’
She prepares all the things she can’t have for her children – Harvey and one-year-old Dexter.
‘We have to worry about cross-contamination a lot. I even have my own butter dish in case there are crumbs or traces of bread in theirs.’
She constantly worries about the children having coeliac disease, but the family have learned to adapt.
‘I’d tell anyone who has suspicions to look into it and discuss it with their GP,’ says Clare.
‘I feel fine now, although every time I see a Jaffa Cake, it breaks my heart.
‘And on pancake day my mouth is watering. But just thinking about the fact that I could be in a wheelchair stops me. It’s just not worth it.’
FOOD INTOLERANCE WEEK
This week has been chosen to highlight the wider problem of food intolerance, which is on the increase according to doctors.
There are more cases of patients who believe certain foods may be affecting their health or who have unexplained symptoms after meals.
Dr Hilary Jones, health editor for ITV’s Daybreak breakfast programme, hopes Food Intolerance Week will raise awareness of a condition which he believes is causing distress and suffering to millions.
‘Food intolerance isn’t uncommon but it is a hidden epidemic. It is thought that almost half of the population in the UK – 45 per cent – are intolerant to items in their diet but many are totally unaware of why they feel unwell or suffer pain,’ says Dr Jones.
Symptoms of food intolerance are usually more subtle than those caused by an allergy, and confusingly can arise within minutes or days of eating the offending food.
Dr Jones endorses a home testing service by YorkTest Laboratories. But those suffering any symptoms including pain and discomfort, should always consult their GP to exclude any other medical conditions.
For information on allergies and food intolerance, visit allergyuk.org
Coeliac disease is not an allergy or simple food intolerance. It is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues and can lead to conditions such as anaemia and osteoporosis.
Compared with the general population, people with coeliac disease have an increased risk of developing certain cancers, including cancer of the small bowel, non Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
However, the majority of people with coeliac disease do not develop any of these and following a strict gluten-free diet helps to reduce the already very low risk.
For further information on diet, health and where to find support visit coeliac.co.uk.
Or you can call the helpline on 0845 305 2060.