Thursday, May 1, 2014

Celiac Awareness Month: 5 Ways to Celebrate, Advocate, and Raise Awareness

May is a very special month for the celiac and gluten-free community. It marks the nation-wide observance of Celiac Awareness Month. Although I myself am not officially diagnosed with the disease, I choose to stand up and celebrate it because widespread awareness leads to better research, more products on the market, and a greater understanding of the seriousness of the medically-required gluten-free diet. Because there are 31 days in which we can celebrate this month, I've decided to put together 31 ways to make each day count whether its simply celebrating being able to eat great gluten-free food or just raising awareness in family members, friends, or your community at large. I plan on adding one entry on the list each day of this month to spread the celebration out. 




1. Change culinary perspectives.

Oftentimes, the first response I get from telling someone I'm gluten and dairy free is the response "I could never give up those foods!" As it happens, my internal response would be: "it's pretty easy when your health, energy, and an body depends on it." However, when I craft my actual response, I make sure to elaborate on the foods I can eat rather than focus on the ones I cannot. Comments like this, and the inevitable comparison of gluten-free foods to unsavory items like cardboard, only go to reinforce the idea that gluten-free equates to flavor free. This month, transform how others see the diet with a fun taste test of gluten-free foods with friends, family members, or others such as colleagues and neighbors. Without making it obvious, invite them over to try a gluten-free item such as a brownies or cupcakes, or go all out with a gluten-free cookout featuring gluten-free foods at every turn. If all goes well, you will have shattered stereotypes of gluten-free diets, and have created an ideal opportunity to educate about celiac disease or gluten sensitivity! 


2. Check out the Checklist

Every person I've met who is on a gluten-free diet for medical reasons (celiac, gluten sensitivity, etc.) seems to have a completely unique set of symptoms. No two people have the same progression or story leading to their diagnoses. The reason for this is that celiac and gluten sensitivity come with a myriad of associated symptoms ranging from the more familiar gastrointestinal effects to the lesser known ones such as headaches and rashes. To an untrained eye, these seemingly random symptoms can be misdiagnosed or written off as common ailments, which is a very dangerous prospect. This month, share this comprehensive list from the University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Center with family members, friends, health clubs, and even doctors to start the conversation about celiac symptoms. All it takes is one person to bring it to another's attention for awareness to be raised. Somewhere down the road, this awareness could help someone recognize symptoms and seek help for their own ailments or another's.


3. Support Local Gluten-Free Purveyors

While this month is all about raising awareness for celiac disease, it should also be a time to recognize the many companies that make eating gluten-free just a little bit easier. I know that as a teen today, the many choices I now see in specialty stores, health food stores, and even in mainstream grocery stores have come thanks to a greater awareness and calling for gluten-free food. While national brands are reliable options and should be recognized for bringing the g-free options into (almost) every corner of the country, I suggest seeking out a locally-owned gluten-free bakery, restaurant, or store and thanking the owners and staff for their commitment to producing gluten-free fare. They provide local options which should be celebrated. I know here in Orlando, I'm celebrating Raphsodic Bakery, Babycakes NYC, Dandelion Cafe, and other small business that are working to make the world a more accessible place for those with dietary challenges.

4. Find an Expo/Conference/Event

Although living a gluten-free life is a 24/7 commitment for those living with celiac (and other gluten sensitivities and disorders), I have found that attending a gluten-free expos, conferences, and/or events momentarily suspends you in a world that is entirely gluten free. Being in a place where everyone understands the quirks of the conditions and sample food is 100% safe is surreal, and for the weekend or however long the gathering, attendees are able to connect on a whole new level with others who understand the condition. Events like these are popping up around the country and oftentimes put schedules out well in advance. For starters, I'd suggest checking out the multi-city Gluten and Allergen Free Expo or Gluten and Allergen Free Wellness Events. For those in the Central Florida area, or planning a trip here before Thanksgiving, I highly recommend checking out the Celebrate Awareness Food Allergy and Celiac Convention which will be at Walt Disney World's Coronado Springs Resort on November 22nd. It will be co-hosted by Sara from Gluten and Dairy Free Walt Disney World (Side note: if you're planning a trip to Disney any time of year, Sarah's blog is a terrific resource!)

5. Donate Gluten-Free Food to a Local Food Bank 

Being on a gluten and dairy free diet, I am pretty accustomed to my routine and have the luxury that I can access gluten-free food readily. However, this is not the case for everyone. As a strong supporter of a local Central Florida charity that provides bags of food and books to impoverished elementary school children, I realized when looking at their suggested items list that I couldn't eat a lot of what went into the children's bags each week to take home. Macaroni, ramen noodles, and other glutenous foods are the staples for food banks and food distribution charities because they are readily available and shelf-stable. While this works well when a person doesn't have a special diet, I can't imagine having to choose between going hungry or eating something that would be harmful to my body. This month, reach out to your local food bank or a charity and ask to see if they would be open to collecting allergen-friendly foods. Shelf stable soy and rice milks, gluten-free crackers, nut butters, safe canned items (veggies, soups, etc.) and other staples would make a definite and profound impact. 


Update: I have clearly fallen behind on my 31 day challenge, but will finish strong before the month is out. Stay tuned over the next couple of weeks.

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