Meet the girls who’ve gone gluten-free
They all miss pizza
When humans kicked off the first agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago, they probably didn’t realise that cultivating wheat, rye and barley would end up ruining drunk food for people today.
Gluten is the main protein found in those three grains and the cause of coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder which damages the small intestine after gluten is ingested.
Four times as many people suffer from it as 60 years ago. Today one in five people in the UK claim some kind of gluten intolerance.
This epidemic, which seems particularly acute amongst people under 25, has led to gluten-free lifestyles mocked as faddish, narcissistic and unreal.
We spoke to six girls about the challenges of living a gluten-free life, on top of all the normal stresses and strains they face.
Laura, 20, Manchester, Linguistics
In summer 2014 I realised I was gluten intolerant. I was doing a season in Greece and I just started getting really sick. Our staff meals consisted of pasta and bread and then more pasta and bread. I started getting really sick and literally I just looked like I was 8 months pregnant. I was being sick all the time. I ended up in hospital in Greece which was a bit of a weird one as well.
I came back home, had loads of tests done and the doctors told me not to eat gluten. I do feel better, healthier now, but I do also get extremely envious.
Being hungover is the worst thing. All I ever want is pizza or pasta or cake – and gluten-free stuff really is shit. The Waitrose stuff is alright but it’s so expensive, even the non Waitrose stuff is as well.
The people I live with are cool with it, but others are like “it’s not a real thing, you’re lying” you know the kind of chat. My Mum never realises what she can and can’t cook. She’ll say “we’re having pasta for dinner” and I’ll be like “Mum, no, I can’t eat that, sorry.”
Eating out is so difficult. Only being able to eat one thing on the menu is a complete ballache. It’s always awkward when you go round to someone’s house for dinner, they make an extra effort to go out of their way to make food for you and you have to say you can’t eat it.
I do still want a pizza that’s the thing. I’ve ended up eating gluten-free Domino’s the last two weekends and it is disgusting. They don’t even cut it for you! That is the travesty of it.
The one thing I miss most is fried chicken. I miss Chicken King in Fallowfield so badly. The chicken there is so succulent and juicy, the seasoning is so delicious… I can’t have it anymore. I wish I’d known when my last Chicken King was going to be – I would’ve savoured the moment.
I get people who do it as a lifestyle choice to be healthier, as long as they don’t go on about it. If they do and then eaten gluten foods it is pretty annoying, because I’m like, I would love to eat that.
Flo, 26, Royal Holloway, Psychology
I was diagnosed as a coeliac three and a half years ago, when I was 23. But I had it for a lot longer than that.
I’d been anemic for quite a long time and they couldn’t really get to the bottom of it. So that’s what prompted them to do the test for coeliac. The test came back positive.
I feel so much healthier – loads more energy, less niggly health complaints. The change wasn’t something I noticed straight away. It was quite gradual, a process of getting healthier over six months. There aren’t many positives, your diet becomes much healthier: if you go somewhere for cake and there’s isn’t a gluten-free one you just can’t have cake, you’re forced to eat well.
I experiment more in the kitchen, eat less processed food and cook more from scratch than I ever used to.
Being a coeliac is an inconvenience. If you’re on the go and you haven’t planned ahead picking up lunch is a nightmare. Lunch almost always pisses me off.
Going out and eating isn’t so bad, being in London definitely helps. One of the biggest and hardest things is that lots of people are gluten-free because it’s a bit trendy. They don’t eat gluten until they see an amazing chocolate souffle on the menu, they’re like “OK, I’ll have that it looks really nice.”
As a result restaurants don’t take people with actual gluten intolerance as seriously as they should. If you’re a waiter and you spend ten minutes going through a menu explaining what’s gluten-free for someone who’s doing it for a fad, who’s going to eat the bloody souffle anyway, you’re not going to be very happy.
More people being gluten-free helps in some ways but people who are blase about it don’t realise the impact they’re having on people with a genuine medical issue.
Yasmin 19, Manchester, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American studies
I was diagnosed as coeliac when I was 17. I was always one of those nightmare eaters – I’m lactose intolerant as well – I found I couldn’t eat a lot of different things without being in pain, having stomach problems.
I went to the doctors and they were like “there’s a possibility that you’re coeliac” – and that’s when life started going downhill. I can’t have a massive bowl of pasta, I can’t have pizza – well, I mean, I can have pizza but I can’t as well. I’m really bad with it. Sometimes I’m just like fuck it, I eat a pizza and it means I’ll end up rolling around in pain for a bit.
On a night out it’s just the worst. Everyone’s getting great drunk food and my choices are totally limited. If I have a pizza I know I won’t be able to sleep for the rest of the night because I’ll be in so much pain.
Even worse is going round someone’s house to eat. I went to a goodbye meal before uni at my mates house and she made this gorgeous lasagne and I had to eat it but it made me really ill.
Occasionally I’ll have a sandwich for lunch but that’s me done with gluten for the rest of the day. At the moment i’ve converted to pitta bread – it’s going ok. Gluten free food, gluten-free sweet treats and pasta, they’re just shit – stodgy, not light or fluffy like they’re supposed to be. They taste gross.
I’ve ended up sticking to the brown versions of carbs which aren’t so bad.
I do feel so much better than when I was 17 though. I know what I can and can’t eat now. I feel so much lighter on my feet. I’m healthier and fitter than I’ve ever been before. It’s definitely worth making sacrifices to feel this way.
I definitely experiment more with food. I can make courgette pasta, I make pizza crusts out of zucchini and cauliflower. I’m a better, more daring cook. But I really do miss pasta – I miss it so much. I miss making a big bowl of spaghetti and pouring ketchup all over it.
Eleni, 22, Media
A year ago I realised I was allergic to gluten. I’d stopped eating carbs as part of a diet and after a week my skin and my stomach felt amazing. It was because I stopped eating gluten.
After that I thought to myself “I’m not going to eat gluten ever again.” I’ve not slipped back into old habits since I gave it up. I always used to feel sick and get the flu. Once I stopped eating gluten my immune system definitely improved and I don’t feel sick all the time.
I do get a lot of shit for my diet. People are like “Ooooo Eleni doesn’t eat gluten.” And if I’m ever at TGI Fridays or the Hard Rock Cafe or a dinner party, the only thing I can eat is a bowl of lettuce.
You always have to watch out for hidden gluten, it can be so difficult. I obsess over packets. You wouldn’t believe what has wheat in it, even things like crab sticks.
I don’t eat too differently from the way I did before, lots of vegetables eggs, avocados, healthy shit. Gluten-free brownies are better than real ones, although generally I don’t try to substitute things, gluten-free bagels are terrible, almost like chewing on a rock or something.
I really miss toast though. When I see people making toast I get insanely jealous.
Hannah, 21, Graduate
Although I’m not technically gluten-free being a vegan means I have a really restricted diet. I’ve never been diagnosed as a coeliac. I made the choice to be a vegan in February after a year of vegetarianism.
I don’t really identify with the stereotype of the spiritual, Ghandi-like vegan. I do feel healthier for doing it though, and I am pleased that I’m doing my bit for the environment. It’s empowering.
And I feel more compassionate too, I never use to be an animal person or anything but I’ve found myself feeling a lot more sentimental about them.
There are downsides too it. Your energy levels go up and down quite because of the way your body adjusts to it. I had to relearn how to eat out. I think being gluten-free or a vegan is becoming a lot more acceptable. These foods are no longer just an afterthought chefs stick on the end of a menu.
Navigating dinner with friends is a bit more awkward. As a word “vegan” can make people panic about what they’re going to cook for you if you come round.
I love making one pot dishes: vegetable curries, sweet potato, butternut squash. I feel like i’ve discovered loads of things since I started, like tahini, grilled aubergines and courgettes. And lots of thai vibes, lime, peanut butter, soy sauce.
Klesta, 19, Bristol, German
I was diagnosed by my GP in 2012 – he got me to do a blood test for coeliac disease and he built up enough evidence to suggest I was most probably wheat and or gluten intolerant.
I don’t really feel healthier for making the change. I can still eat chocolate and sweets, and specific gluten-free alternatives tend to be fattier and sugarier to make up for the lack of gluten, so I gained weight after switching. But overall I do feel healthier in that the original problems I was having, like bloating, are gone.
I’m also a much better cook because the condition has forced me to try new things.
Gluten free foods are so expensive. This is especially the case if you’re a coeliac and require the gluten-free guarantee. I’ve ended up eating tons of salad.
As far as drunk food goes I just end up buying chips. Every. Single. Time. They might not be completely gluten-free but they’re usually wheat-free or only contain small amounts of gluten, so not enough to make me feel sick.
At the beginning friends definitely got annoyed at me because I wouldn’t go out for meals, or I would go out and not eat much. People hated how my new healthy eating habits highlighted their unhealthy ones.
Right now I eat a lot of chicken or fish, with rice or quinoa, and ratatouille or veg or something on the side. And salad, there’s always salad.
I miss pizza and pasta more than anything else. The taste just is not the same when it’s gluten free.