My free-from life… Charlotte Hunter

Nutritional therapist reveals challenges of raising kids in a gluten-free household…


I met my husband, Robert, in 2001 and for as long as I can remember he suffered from fatigue and mouth ulcers. He would scratch or damage the inside of his mouth while eating and resign himself to the fact he would soon develop a painful cluster of infected mouth ulcers. For Robert this was normal. While he didn’t initially develop digestive symptoms or weight loss, he gradually became more and more intolerant to milk. In the early days my nutrition career was very much focused on the gut, so we didn’t immediately identify it as coeliac disease.

It was only nine years later when Robert developed a pain in his side that he went to the GP, who ordered every possible blood test. He tested positive for coeliac disease and an endoscopic biopsy of his gut revealed that his villi were significantly flattened, meaning he had probably had a bad relationship with gluten for years. That’s when we discovered that gluten can attack the body in many ways, from cardiovascular health to endocrine function.

He took the news stoically and, although his first reaction was to mourn the loss of real ale (not bread or croissants!), it didn’t initially affect us too much as we largely stick to wheat-free diets with non-gluten grains and fresh wholefoods. However, we did stumble over a few things like holidays, which are only possible if we do lengthy research to find out where we can eat beforehand.

Meals out, which require a call to the restaurant in advance, or lunches at work, which need to be planned and prepared beforehand, have also been a challenge. No mean feat when you consider that the ‘free-from’ ranges you see today hardly existed seven years ago.

As gluten-free options were often snack foods, Robert also gained a little weight and socialising with friends and family hasn’t always been plain sailing either. For example, well-meaning relatives have innocently fed us couscous and semolina thinking they were gluten-free, only for Robert to discover otherwise.

Then came the miracle of our first child. Leo was born in 2011 and his gluten-free story hasn’t been so straightforward either. As soon as we started weaning it was clear something wasn’t right. Over the next year it was necessary to have back-to-back GP and hospital appointments, all the while being told ‘it’s just toddler diarrhoea’.

I eventually took matters into my own hands, put Leo on a gluten-free diet, and requested an appointment with a specialist paediatric and gastroenterologist.

Leo’s blood tests showed negative for coeliac disease, but it was clear from his family history and symptoms that there was a connection as his skin problems, bloating, pain and diarrhoea all improved within 48 hours of removing gluten from his diet. Leo has had to become very aware that gluten makes him poorly and he has developed an amazing sense of self-preservation. He also loves being just like daddy!

The final member of our gluten-free club is my son Luke, who has had a very similar story to his brother. Luke is just over three and a half years old and at age two we noticed the same symptoms; explosive, chronic diarrhoea, irritated skin and disruptive behaviour. As if by magic when we eradicated gluten the problems disappeared very quickly.

Our family philosophy is that being a coeliac is not something to be embarrassed about and, unlike some people, we don’t see it as causing a nuisance or being a curse. Instead, to us it is an opportunity to eat clean, nutritious and amazingly tasty food. Everyone in our house is involved in planning, cooking and preparing meals. It just takes a bit of thought, planning, communication and creativity to manage. Since the diagnoses I’ve tried to live my life by just a few simple rules – avoid processed foods, plan well in advance for parties, meals out and holidays, and educate the kids, family and friends about coeliac disease and issues like cross-contamination.

So yes, coeliac disease has had an impact on our lives, but the good news is that it doesn’t rule our lives. Ever since Robert and the kids were diagnosed we have actually seen many positives too. In fact, we haven’t looked back and, because we pay such close attention to what we eat, we are healthy, happy and our energy levels are just through the roof.

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