My free-from life… Mari Wilson

Singing soul sensation Mari Wilson explains how she used to have to have two dresses on standby when performing – all dependant on whether she’d had a gluten reaction…


Id been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 1978 when I was in my twenties and have been on insulin ever since. Shortly afterwards, I also had an overactive thyroid gland which, ten years later became underactive, so a daily dose of thyroxin was added to my routine. My consultant told me that I had auto immune disorder and to keep an eye out for developing something called coeliac disease.

It all started in the late eighties. I needed two different outfits for my shows because I never knew if (or why) my stomach would be distended, which was something that was happening more and more frequently. On a good day it would be a fitted figure-hugging sexy dress and other days it was the loose-fitting baggy horror. I looked dreadful, I was constantly tired and losing weight. I remember I was doing a week’s residency at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho and would sleep literally all day long so I would have enough energy for the evening’s performance.

In 1991 I was recording my album The Rhythm Romance and some of the musicians came over for dinner. I made pasta, but something was telling me not to eat it. It was as if my body was talking to me, begging me not to put this ‘gluten’ into my mouth. Another time when I went to Ireland to appear in a TV show I decided not to eat anything, for fear of the dreaded balloon-belly. About two hours before the show I was so hungry I had some cream crackers (full of gluten of course) and sure enough, by the time I was called to perform, I had the usual discomfort. When I saw the video later I couldn’t believe how awful I looked! My eyes were puffy and my face was not my face. Something was wrong.

In January 1992 I was diagnosed as coeliac. It was a new year and I was on a new diabetic gluten-free diet – yippee!

Time to go food shopping. Of course, there was absolutely nothing I could eat! You couldn’t even get rice cakes in the supermarkets back then.  I don’t eat meat and I used to eat Linda McCartney’s veggie sausages, but they contain wheat and it was terribly hard to find anything else. I couldn’t believe how much of this stuff was in everything; from English mustard to white pepper, they add wheat flour.

Hours were spent at the health food store where I found some bread which was like a brick. Even toasted it could break your teeth! I was given the option of getting special bread on prescription, which was slightly better, but only just. One day I discovered some pasta made of rice; lovely thick ribbons of the stuff. I was so excited! However, once boiled it all stuck together and came out of the pan looking like some kind of art installation.

So my diet became extremely boring for quite some time, and don’t even ask me about touring! It was always a challenge being diabetic on the road, but at least I could eat pretty much anything because of the freedom of being on insulin – but this?

So I’d get out my trusty Tupperware containers and fill them with salads, fruit etc. Even crisps could be dangerous, apart from the plain ones, but I’m a cheese and onion gal.

Eventually I just thought, right, I’ve got to get a handle on this and I found some great cookbooks. Cashew nut and tomato risotto became a favourite, as did stir-fry vegetables, poached salmon and all things healthy. It just meant that fast-food couldn’t be a part of my life and, really, who wants that anyway?

I thought as a Type 1 diabetic I was pretty healthy, but now I was eating a really nutritious balanced diet with everything I needed. I started to look so much better and had loads of energy – I’ve never looked back. There is the odd day when I walk past a bakery and swoon over the smell of freshly baked bread, but it only lasts a moment. I wouldn’t choose to have these health issues, but I’ve learned so much about not only nutrition but also about my own body and how it works.

In the past few years things have changed enormously. All supermarkets have their ‘free-from’ section with breads, muffins, biscuits, cereals etc. Even the coffee shops have the GF options and it has changed my life so much, especially when I’m touring, which is pretty much all the time. We stop at the services and I can get a sandwich, a ready made salad or a brownie even.

So I’m doing very well thank you very much. I still have a really lousy immune system and have to be careful – plenty of sleep, good food etc. I swim, gym and do classes regularly and a little yoga to de-stress. Oh, and not too much alcohol, but it is wonderful that champagne is gluten-free!