“You’re a coeliac that is why you’re infertile. You need to cut gluten immediately.”
Finally, an explanation for my infertility, lethargy, anaemia and constant stomach cramps. When my IVF doctor mentioned the word "coeliac" I had no idea what it meant and the whole "gluten-free" thing puzzled me even more.
My husband and I had been trying to fall pregnant naturally for a few years before we headed down the IVF path 12 years ago. We had tried every fertility trick in the book – expensive ovulation kits, herbal remedies, acupuncture, eating more of this and less of that, taking a holiday, taking another holiday – and nothing worked.
When Helen Tzouganatos was first told she was a coeliac 12 years ago, she had never heard of the word.
I met my IVF doctor Professor Mark Bowman and told him I had no "serious" health issues just unexplained anaemia since childhood, abdominal cramps and lactose intolerance. He immediately suspected I was a coeliac. When the results were positive, everything made sense.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that is triggered when you eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, oats and barley. Gluten causes an inflammatory reaction in the body damaging the villi in your intestinal wall causing malabsorption of nutrients. The symptoms vary from person to person but often present as anaemia, abdominal pain, lethargy, weakness and infertility.
Most of the symptoms like fatigue are common everyday complaints, which is why coeliac disease often goes unnoticed. One in 70 Australians have coeliac disease yet 80 per cent are undiagnosed. The only treatment is a life long gluten free diet.
When the results were positive, everything made sense.
I cut out gluten from my diet immediately to heal my body and, after six rounds of IVF treatment, I fell pregnant with my son Vasili. Given it was a long and difficult journey to conceive him we did not wait long before trying for number two. Sofia was conceived on the second frozen embryo transfer 17 month later.
I clearly recall my doctor advising it would take five years for my body to completely recover from the damage caused by gluten. Exactly five years later I fell pregnant naturally with our miracle baby, Ruby. She is now six years old and the youngest of three healthy active children, none of whom are coeliacs to date.
When I was a kid, doctors were not screening for coeliac disease and nobody was talking about gluten. Today, if you present with anaemia, tiredness and abdominal pain most GPs will immediately screen you for coeliac disease. If you are not a coeliac you can still have "non-coeliac gluten sensitivity", while some other simply choose to eliminate gluten because it may make them feel better.
Twelve years ago the initial change in my diet was challenging because there were not many gluten-free options on the market. I would drive 10km to purchase the only gluten-free loaf of bread on the market at a health food store and it was as heavy as a brick and had to be salvaged by the toaster.
This sorry state of affairs led me to experiment with different gluten-free flours at home. I would bake my own bread, which was far superior to any store bought version. Over time I developed a large portfolio of gluten free baking recipes that I would share with family and friends.
My gluten-free recipes taste like beautiful food made from scratch: you would have no idea my soft bouncy bread, moist cakes or fluffy meatballs are gluten free. My kids mainly eat gluten free because I’m the cook but they have no idea the baked quinoa crumbed chicken with creamy Japanese mayonnaise does not contain gluten. To them, it’s just delicious real food.
Looking back, who would have thought a medical diagnosis would spawn an entirely new career for me? Prior to my diagnosis I was in the corporate world marketing household brands such as Nescafe and developing the next Kit Kat flavour. I left the corporate world after my third child and decided to start a gluten-free food blog, Hungry & Fussy, as a creative outlet. Who better to be the face of gluten-free cooking than a coeliac? I grew a following mainly through Instagram. Fast forward four years and I’m a cookbook author, food photographer and host of Australia’s first gluten free cooking show, Loving Gluten Free on SBS FOOD.
Gluten free is no longer "niche", it is mainstream. Everyone has a friend or relative who eats gluten free, restaurant menus have "gf" items marked on the menu, mainstream brands are launching gluten free options and the market will continue to explode as more Australians eliminate gluten from their diet.
Helen Tzouganatos is a cook book author and presenter of Loving Gluten Free launching on SBS Food on Thursday, 17 October.
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