Being gluten-free hit the headlines again this week: namely because coeliacs are costing GPs far too much money with their prescriptions and they've had enough. "It's not fair!" doctors cried, "I'm spending all day prescribing buckwheat jammy dodgers* when I could be dishing out unnecessary antibiotics for colds or pointing at a diagram to remind people what vegetables look like." As for the public, many people discussed the issue in the same tone reserved for benefits scroungers ("Why should my taxes pay for their biscuits!") and the teachers' strike ("they have a much easier life than me if bread is all they're worried about!")
Of course, the main reason for this initiative is cost-cutting. I have previously lamented the cost of gluten free food and I do appreciate that it is pricey for the NHS too. Yet there are many things that are much pricey for the NHS: stop smoking programmes, encouraging us to exercise (designing those colourful 'change for life' blobs wasn't cheap!) and the constant reminders of how much we should drink. All of these things are quite simply things that we can and should be responsible for controlling by ourselves. Yet when it comes to coeliac disease, which has many debilitating symptoms, people are handed a leaflet and left to fend for themselves.
However, the director of the healthcare did leave coeliacs with some insightful advice, telling them to switch bread and pasta for 'potatoes and rice' as if he had somehow cured the disease already. Did he not think people maybe had already tried that? Did he not think that perhaps people occasionally wanted to have a sandwich or a bowl of pasta (and that's what we're talking about here, don't let the headlines fool in you in to believe coeliacs are ordering a 3-course meal each week)? Of course there are plenty of gluten-free foodies who love to create new and exciting recipes but if people just want to eat gluten bread and pasta that option should be there for them. While it's easy to point out at the rapidly increasing availability of stuff on the supermarket shelves, options are still way too expensive for people living on breadline. And let's not forget that this isn't a choice here: accessible and cheap options need to be available for people or it could have serious consequences for their health. There's no half-measured here: without proper dietary management for coeliacs, patients risk suffering from malabsorption, nutrition deficiencies, anaemia and a heightened risk of cancer.
But who can blame the media for jumping on this bandwagon? The majorities of stories that we read about gluten swap coeliacs and intolerance interchangeably, as if there's no difference between someone who gets a bit bloated after pasta and someone with the disease.Restaurants often flit between 'low gluten' 'may contain gluten' and 'gluten free' on the same menu, leaving us utterly baffled. And thanks to Novac Djokovic, everyone is avoiding playing a round of tennis against coeliacs, since he declared bread to be 'weighing' his arm down (an accurate test if ever there was one)
We need to acknowledge that coeliac disease is a serious illness; not an intolerance or something that brings you out in a rash. We spend billions of pounds each year funding research, treating and finding ways to support patients for the many illnesses that affect the UK population. Why should coeliacs be any different?
*Unfortunately there is no such thing as a buckwheat jammy dodger. Although there definitely should be.
Jenna Farmer blogs about living free from gluten and dairy over www.abalancedbelly.co.uk/free-from.