FOR as long as she can remember, Jenny Breckon suffered from gastric problems.
"Awful stomach pains - a lot of stomach pains. Bloating."
Breckon first saw a medical specialist when she was in her late teens but relief was elusive. "I was labelled irritable bowel, colitis. . . . I was on different medications and the things they (doctors) gave me never worked.
Breckon, now 38, continued to suffer through her 20s and early 30s. Then, in 2006, Breckon's mother, who was battling a life-threatening illness, was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for medical tests and returned with a diagnosis of celiac disease. Breckon had her answer.
"I don't have a formal diagnosis but I live a glutenfree lifestyle because I know 100 per cent that I am a celiac. It just never got diagnosed. It got missed."
Celiac disease is a genetic, digestive disorder that affects children and adults. People with celiac disease are unable to consume foods that contain gluten, a sticky protein found in wheat, barely, rye and other grains. For these people, gluten sets off an autoimmune reaction that damages the small intestine, preventing nutrients from being absorbed.
The Canadian Celiac Association estimates that one in 133 persons in Canada is affected by celiac disease. An undetermined number of Canadians suffer from gluten sensitivity.
Gluten sensitivity is not the same as celiac disease.
Naturopathic physician Natalie Groenewoud, of North Shore Naturopathic Clinic, explains that people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity suffer a delayed allergic response, with no damage to the intestine. "It's more of a stressor on your system," she notes. Celiac disease is an autoimmune intestinal disorder. "When a person (with celiac disease) eats gluten, it actually destroys their small intestine microvilli." The villi are the microscopic finger-like projections that line the inside of the small intestine, through which nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream. If the villi are damaged, the person can become malnourished and suffer from other symptoms.
Those symptoms vary, making it difficult for a person with gluten intolerance or sensitivity to become aware of their condition. "It could be achy joints. It could be generalized fatigue. Headaches. Gas and bloating," says Groenewoud.
Gluten sensitivity can be picked up in a food allergy test. Celiac disease can be detected through blood screening and confirmed by a small bowel biopsy. There is no known cure for celiac disease. For those suffering from the disease, the only current treatment is to maintain a strict gluten-free diet.
Breckon says her doctors were unable to confirm celiac disease, even after four separate examinations of her digestive tract. However, her health improved dramatically after eliminating gluten from her diet.
"Within two weeks my life changed," says the North Vancouver resident, who is a cake decorator and baker by trade. In November, she opened The Sweet Tooth Cakery in North Vancouver's Maplewood neighbourhood. The bakery, at 2055 Old Dollarton Hwy., is 100 per cent gluten-free, which Breckon says is important to avoid cross-contamination.
"While Joe Smith's bakery might make some really great gluten-free cookies, chances are they're not gluten-free if he's using other flours with gluten in them. The air in that bakery is going to be filled with gluten and it takes very little for somebody with celiac disease or true gluten intolerance - it literally takes a crumb of toast - to make them sick."
Breckon's baked goods - made with sorghum flour, rice flour and tapioca flour instead of wheat flour - are gaining a following in the gluten-free community. "I'm shocked every day by the number of people that tell me they're just from the neighbourhood and they have celiac disease," she says. Her bakery is also attracting a growing number of people who are eating gluten-free foods by choice.
"I think people are becoming more aware of what they are putting in their bodies and questioning 'Do we need this much gluten in our products?'" says Breckon.
The gluten-free trend was given a boost last summer with the release of the bestseller Wheat Belly. The book by American cardiologist William Davis claims that eliminating wheat from our diets can prevent fat storage, shrink bulges and reverse health problems.
Gloria Tsang is a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. Tsang warns against using a gluten-free diet for weight loss. She says there is no proof of this in scientific journals. "I tried to look up 'gluten free diet' and 'weight loss' and found zero studies that show a gluten-free diet will help a person to lose weight."
However, she says she is not surprised to find that people on a gluten-free diet may drop a few pounds. This is because people who eat gluten-free are more mindful of what they're eating and eliminate between-meal "comfort foods" like bagels and bread and deserts like brownies and cookies, she says. "We have an overeating problem; it's not an overeating wheat problem."
Tsang also advises consumers to read the nutritional labels when shopping for glutenfree products at the grocery store. Gluten free is not always the better choice, she says. On a recent stroll down the cereal aisle, "I looked at Cheerios versus Nature's Path Whole O's," which are gluten-free. "I'm a fan of Nature's Path because they're a B.C.-based company. But when you look and compare, unfortunately Nature's Path cereal actually has more calories and more carbohydrates than Cheerios."
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Myshsael Schlyecher developed a painful skin rash after the birth of her second daughter, 16 years ago. The North Vancouver resident later learned she was allergic to gluten. The rash was dermatitis herpetiformis, a chronic skin condition that can affect people with gluten sensitivity.
Schlyecher, a professional photographer and mother of three, felt great when eating glutenfree at home but would run into problems when dining out.
Gluten is a common ingredient in prepared foods. "It's in soy sauce, it's in malt, it's in salad dressings - anything that has preservatives in it usually has gluten in it," she says. "As the years went on, the more I would accidentally have gluten, the more it would affect me - or the more I would realize the effects. I would break out in hives, and start itching within about 15 or 20 minutes."
Schlyecher also discovered gluten in the cosmetics and nutritional supplements she was using. Eliminating gluten from her life and searching for healthy substitutes has been a "long journey," she says, and one that led her to create a smartphone app, Wheat-Free World, in order to share her knowledge with others. Launched last year, the app is available for purchase on iTunes. It was created with input from a nurse practitioner and nutritionist and contains information on gluten intolerance, gluten-free recipes, links to resources and a products page.
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Heather McColl is a registered dietitian and nutrition specialist with Overwaitea Food Group. She says the food industry is responding to consumer demand for gluten-free products by offering more gluten-free options and improving labelling and signage.
"We've certainly seen more interest in gluten-free products and people interested in following a gluten-free diet whether they have gluten intolerance or not," says McColl.
At Save-on Foods stores, Gluten Free signs now indicate sections where shoppers can find gluten-free products. The signs have a QR code that shoppers with a smartphone can scan to go directly to the Save-On Foods website where there's a full list of gluten-free products the store carries.
Health Canada has recognized gluten intolerance as an important health concern. On Aug. 4, new food allergen regulations will come into effect. The new regulations require all ingredients to be listed on prepackaged food labels. Previously, some ingredients were exempt, such as components of margarine, seasoning and flour.
Also, in accordance with the new regulations, the Canadian Celiac Association has a new gluten-free certification program.
The program helps consumers identify products that are safe for people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. The program also provides companies with manufacturing guidelines. Products must meet Health Canada's glutenfree regulations and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's "truth in labelling" provisions. Manufacturers can then apply to the association for permission to use the Gluten Free symbol.
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Andria Stutzer is a board member with the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Celiac Association.
The 42-year-old North Vancouver resident developed celiac disease when she was in her mid-30s.
She says a stomach virus triggered her immune system, causing gluten intolerance.
"I just thought I had the flu," she recalls. She unwittingly fed the illness with gluten-rich foods and suffered from migraines, constipation and nausea. "When you're sick, you comfort yourself. I didn't know until later that I triggered the celiac disease," she says.
A gastroenterologist confirmed her celiac disease through a small bowel biopsy.
Stutzer helps run a North Shore drop-in group for celiacs like herself. The group meets on the first Wednesday of every month, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Roastmastir's Coffee House, 1902 Lonsdale Ave. in North Vancouver. The café does not sell gluten-free foods, and so members often bring their own snacks.
Stutzer says celiacs can be a self-sufficient bunch. "A lot of people keep to themselves," she notes. "They have their instructions and they're OK on their own." However, she encourages anyone with a gluten intolerance to attend the drop-ins, which offer valuable information and outreach.
"I learn something new at every meeting - a new place to eat, a new place to buy things, different products that work."
Stutzer sees the monthly coffee group as a venue for sharing. "We have some ears that will listen and understand what we're going through. It can be very personal for some people."