Talking to Your Relatives About Celiac: Holiday Edition

Ah, the holidays.

They’re a time for warmth, togetherness, good food, and great conversation. There’s nothing we love more, truly. But in addition to all the swelling of hearts and brimming of good cheer, there’s a more sinister sentiment brewing…

Silly questions from skeptical relatives about your so-called “gluten-free lifestyle,” typically accompanied by a healthy dose of side-eye. You know the ones.

“You’re what, now? Like that goopy chick – what’s her name – Gwyneth Paltrow?”

“So you don’t eat bread? But you can have stuffing, right?”

“Does that mean you don’t eat meat?”

“You know, there are starving children in Africa.”

Okay, guys, everyone relax. While the popularity of a gluten-free diet is growing – for some as a necessity, for others as a perceived health benefit – it remains a bit of mystery to many, particularly of an older generation. As more and more are diagnosed with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, the more we are called upon to explain the what’s and the why’s of going gluten-free.

So, let’s talk about how to give the “elevator pitch:” a clear, concise explanation of what going gluten-free means for your health; that quick response that shuts down your snarky cousin Judy and let’s you get back to sipping champagne and discussing football, career aspirations, vacation plans, and the other sundries that warm conversation around the holiday dinner table.

For convenience, we’ll break it down by family member:

Grandma

“These trendy diets are just an excuse to be picky. Your generation takes everything for granted. During the war, we would boil leather and eat it if we had to.”

First, sorry to hear that. Second, while some people choose to go gluten-free, others (like me) have to. When I eat gluten, my small intestines react immediately, and negatively, inhibiting my body’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients. Over time, the lining is eroded and – left untreated – can lead to osteoporosis, infertility, thyroid disease and cancer. It’s definitely not easy to avoid gluten, and certainly not fun. Trust me, Gram, if I could still eat your fruitcake, I would.

Uncle Joe

“Isn’t this what all the celebrities do as an excuse to lose weight?”

The idea that a gluten-free diet is an automatically healthier diet is false (contrary to other, Goopier accounts). Eating less bread and cookies can certainly help you lose weight, but that’s because you’re eating less bread and cookies (and butter and sugar and everything else in them). In fact, a lot of “gluten-free” specialty foods make up for a lack of gluten with extra calories, weird ingredients and added sugar. Plus, a lack of gluten does not mean a lack of carbohydrates. If you want to lose weight, just eat more salad.

Your Younger Brother

“Pssh… it’s in your head.”

Are you really going to let your kid brother talk to you like that? Put him in a headlock and repeat the following:

1 in 133 Americans suffer from celiac disease. It’s genetic. Symptoms include bloating, gas, diarrhea, fatigue, itchy rashes, tingling, numbness, pale mouth sores, join paint, weight loss, delayed growth, malnutrition, discolored teeth and depression. Dumby.

Great-Aunt Ruth

“No bread. Fine. Just pick the croutons out.”

Dear, beloved, Ruth… no. Going on a gluten-free diet means going 100% gluten-free. That means nothing I eat has come into contact with gluten at any point. Even a crumb, a speck, a micro-nugget of the stuff will make me violently ill for days. And that goes for more than just bread. Gluten is in pasta, marinades, salad dressings, ice cream, prepared meats, vinegar, gravy, cereal, shampoo, play dough, makeup… I could go on, but my champagne is getting warm.

Your Cousin
“So how long do you have to be gluten-free?”

Forever, Cuz’. The only known treatment for celiac disease or gluten-intolerance is a 100% gluten-free diet. Go talk to Aunt Ruth, she’ll fill you in.

Does that about cover it?

In all seriousness, helping your loved ones understand your disease and your dietary needs is an important step. Not only because it promotes general awareness and makes your family gatherings much easier, but because with a genetic autoimmune disease like celiac, you never know which relatives may also be suffering without realizing.

If you have trouble memorizing all the facts (yikes, there are a lot), The Savvy Celiac wrote a great article for sharing with well-meaning friends and family to prep them for cooking for someone on a strict gluten-free diet. Additionally, here are some great, informative resources on gluten-free living that we love:

Happy holidays, friends! From our family to yours, we wish you the season’s best.

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