Christina Stewart is a Hamilton blogger, photographer and frequent cafe haunter. For the last 13 years she re-adjusted her lifestyle to cope with multiple food allergies and intolerances. Along the way she has discovered just how challenging, frustrating and time-consuming it can be finding suitable ingredients and places to eat.
Christina is one of many people in New Zealand living with food allergies and intolerances. While there’s no denying awareness has increased over the last few years, there’s still a significant amount of misinformation and misunderstanding floating around.
Christina’s journey of discovery has been many years in the making and through her blog she has connected with numerous people in a similar situation.
“When I say it’s been 13 years since I’ve been dealing with multiple food allergies and intolerances, it’s actually far longer. It’s 13 years since I have finally become aware of what has caused my years of dodgy health.
“For me, it all started with gluten … and while I tried to deny it for ages, eventually my gut wouldn’t allow me to carry on. Since then, I’ve also had to cut out dairy and high FODMAPs foods like onion, garlic, chickpeas, mushrooms and more.
“I’m not the only person in my family with food allergies either. In my immediate family there are three of us with food allergies. And when we look at our family tree there are signs of food allergies going back several generations.
“Food allergies can really put a dampener on your ability to eat. You have to learn new ways of cooking, get up to speed with what ingredients are safe for you and source different places to eat when you’re out of the house. It also means you have to ask a lot of embarrassing questions at cafes and restaurants like “are the chips cooked in a separate vat to the foods containing gluten?”
“For ages after diagnosis I lived on gluten-free sausages, tinned salmon and gluten-free bread. It was disgusting, and unsurprisingly my health suffered because of my crap diet. Everybody needs good nutrition.
“About a year ago, I decided to turn my life around, and start focusing on eating good, allergy-free food; that were high in nutrients but also tasty. Turning my diet around has improved my health massively and inspired me to start a blog about what I’ve learnt. There are so many amazing places to eat in Hamilton, and so many great foods that you can still eat even with multiple food allergies.
“There’s also a huge community around who are ready and willing to help you, including people who will even teach you to cook.The best advice I have for others with food allergies is to get online. Join Facebook groups, read blogs, do your research. Knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge is health.”
Christina also writes a popular blog Glutey Girl in the Tron (www.gluteygirlinthetron.com) focusing on living with food allergies. It also includes interviews, information about where to eat and tips on how to live a healthy life.
What is the biggest challenge of being gluten free?
Being gluten-free isn’t as much as a problem for me as it used to be. The bigger challenge is having multiple food intolerances alongside the gluten problem. Eating out can still be tricky, I used to get caught out a lot and get glutened, but these days I’m less embarrassed about asking a million questions before eating.
What was the most insulting thing ever said to you?
“Oh that’s why you’re slim.” Um, no…just stop right there thanks. Actually, you can still be overweight with food allergies. I also dislike people making comments about body size, it’s just so rude. Eating well is still a challenge regardless of your allergies/intolerances.
“I wish I had food allergies.” Seriously, I’ve heard this several times. No you don’t. Go away please.
What was the funniest comment ever made?
“You can just hang out [while we eat and drink]. It’ll be fun.” Nope, it’s not fun watching you eat and drink while I sit in the corner. Nice try though.
What are the three most common misconceptions people have about being gluten free?
• We’re all neurotic folk who aspire to be Gwyneth Paltrow. (Seriously, none of us WANT to be gluten-free, it’s not fun and it’s expensive).
• One bite won’t hurt you (yup it will, in fact crumbs can hurt some of us).
• Food allergies are caused by your parents keeping you too clean when you were a child – I don’t know where this ridiculous rumour started, but it’s total nonsense.
How and when did you first discover your gluten allergy?
I honestly did NOT want to know about gluten as an issue, but unfortunately my health got to the point where I had to do something. My sister was first diagnosed about 15 years ago after several years of chronic fatigue-like symptoms and weight loss. A couple of years afterwards I was constantly on antibiotics (every month) and run down. My immunity was just the pits, so I went to see Dr Mike Godfrey in Tauranga (who is now retired).
He’s an integrative doctor who tested me for a range of things. After running his tests he immediately told me to stop eating gluten. I tried for months afterwards to keep eating it, but found as I reduced my gluten eating I reacted more and more to it. Eventually I couldn’t keep eating it, and now am so sensitive to it that I can’t handle contamination e.g. crumbs.
Years later I saw a gastroenterologist who tested me for the coeliac gene, which I have. I’ve never had a bowel biopsy and don’t intend to, because this requires you to eat gluten. The gastroenterologist also put me on a low FODMAPs diet because in addition to my gluten issue I have irritable bowel syndrome. I’ll write about FODMAPs in a future column.
What were the most immediate changes you noticed?
No more antibiotics. Seriously, this was amazing – my health improved massively. After my diagnosis, we started connecting the dots about other family members (living and deceased) and their health issues – and there were several signs of coeliac issues going back a few generations eg ulcerative colitis, bowel cancer.
What was the hardest food/ingredient to give up?
Sugar! I LOVE sugar, but sugar doesn’t love me. It’s still a challenge for me not to eat it. And when I do have sugar I feel absolutely rubbish – darn it.
What do you crave?
Sugar. This stuff is surely as addictive as cocaine.
How do you deal with that?
Often when I want sugar it’s because I’m hungry, so I’ll try and eat something with plenty of protein. Or if I’m really struggling I’ll make something with a less dodgy sugar, like maple syrup (70 percent of the sucrose of refined sugar).
What are the biggest pitfalls of being gluten intolerant?
What I find the hardest is eating out. When a menu item is labelled gluten-free, you really have to double check it. Eg. Have the chips been cooked in the same oil as food containing gluten? Is the gluten-free food touching the gluteny food in the cabinet? There’s a big difference between low-gluten and gluten-free.
What misleading food packaging should we be aware of?
You can get a handy little ingredients guide from Coeliac NZ that helps with reading food packaging. I still find some of the labels difficult to decipher, but the book helps and it’s only $7.
What are your greatest gluten free treats?
My favourite treat at the moment is Bounty Balls from Cafe Inc – so delicious (gluten-free, dairy-free and refined sugar-free).
What is your advice to fellow gluten-free people?
Try and eat food that is naturally gluten-free, like whole foods. They’re a lot cheaper (and better for you) than processed gluten-free products.