Life StoryAug/Sep 2009 Issue

A Voice for Celiac Disease

Elisabeth Hasselbeck is healthy, happy and gluten free

Celiac disease, a hypersensitivity to gluten, is an autoimmune disease that affects 1 in 133 Americans. Because there is little awareness of the disease and because symptoms often mimic those of other conditions, millions of people remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. In fact, more than 97 percent of the celiacs in the United States do not know they have the condition.

As cohost of television's The View, Elisabeth Hasselbeck leads a fastpaced, high-profi le life. The diagnosis of celiac disease hasn't slowed her down or inhibited her life. She's an outspoken advocate for the gluten-free community and has recently penned a book chronicling her life with celiac disease. The G-Free Diet: A Gluten Free Survival Guide (Center Street) offers insights, resources and inspiration derived from years of research and fi rst-hand experience.

Expecting their third child in August, Hasselbeck, 32, is married to her college sweetheart Tim, 31, a retired NFL player who’s a sports analyst for ESPN. Their daughter Grace, 4, and son Taylor, 18 months, keep the family busy but Hasselbeck recently took some time to talk to publisher Peggy Wagener about life before and after going g-free.

LW Congratulations on the success of your new book. When were you diagnosed with celiac disease?

Hasselbeck My symptoms began in 1997 but it took about five years before I began relating those symptoms to gluten and another three or four years to get the official diagnosis from Peter Green, MD, director of The Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University.

 

What was the first sign that you had a problem?

When I was in college, I went to Belize to teach with an immersion group. It was an amazing experience but I got incredibly sick while I was there. I returned with a hugely distended belly and a high fever and ended up in the infirmary at school. They diagnosed me with a bacterial intestinal infection and things just never got better. From that time forward until I went gluten free, my stomach determined everything in my life. It determined what I did that day, who I saw, what I ate and when I went to sleep. For instance, I prefer to go for a run at some point every day. Out of fear that as soon as I put food into my mouth I was going to be in pain and discomfort, I'd get up and run at 5:00 a.m. I knew that was my only chance to do it before my body started attacking itself. Chances were I wouldn't be able to walk, much less run, later in the day. I'd be in so much pain and so fatigued by the end of the day that I could barely stay awake to drive home.

 

And after college?

Work was almost impossible because I was sick so much. I was a shoe designer working at Puma and there were times when I was in so much pain and suffering from such fatigue. Working with that kind of pain on a daily basis—those are what I consider my real survivor moments.

 

It was when you were a contestant on Survivor: The Australian Outback that you became aware that food was controlling your life. What happened there?

My experience in Australia was shocking. Oddly enough, even though I wasn't eating much while I was there, I felt well.

I think that's what got me through those 39 days. As tired as I was in a different sort of way, as lonely as was, the challenges there were all secondary to this sort of body renovation I was experiencing. I may have been tired. I may have been sore and had bruises all over my body from sleeping on the ground—but I didn't feel sick. My stomach no longer hurt. I returned from Australia determined to find out what was wrong with me. In the past, I'd been told I had a thyroid problem or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a spastic colon, among other things. But treating all those things wasn’t making me better so I kept asking questions. My own search for answers led me to self-diagnose my celiac disease. Later, Dr. Green confirmed that diagnosis with the appropriate tests.

 

You were relieved to finally have an answer but what would you say to people who are devastated by the diagnosis?

When Dr. Green told me I had celiac disease, I wanted to give him a hug and say thank you. To those who are devastated by the diagnosis, I would say imagine having any other chronic disease and then someone tells you exactly how you can cure it. The g-free diet is the key that will unlock the door to health for you. It’s a tool that will make you feel better without shots or pills or constant medical attention. You have a plan that's laid out for you that will restore your health, and that plan begins the day you begin adhering to the g-free diet. I’ve been g-free for seven years. I've never had more energy in my life. My memory has improved. I no longer experience muscle or joint pain. My overall alertness is much better. I no longer feel as if my body is fighting itself. The diet doesn't have to be a downer. There are good-tasting alternatives out there. I can go to Wendy's or PF Chang's or Outback Steakhouse and easily eat g-free.

 

Do you ever struggle with adhering to the diet?

Life is going to happen. I'm about as vigilant as anyone can be but mistakes happen. I've learned to get beyond the food fear. It's taken time. When I joined The View in 2003, I'd begun eating gluten free but I wasn't convinced that I was a celiac. Until I got that medical diagnosis, I was still challenging the diet at times. I'd eat a protein bar that I knew contained a tiny amount of gluten or would take more chances with my food. Getting the diagnosis from a doctor made me take the diet more seriously. I knew the dangers associated with the disease. I knew that if I didn't maintain the gluten-free diet, I'd be at greater risk for malignancies. I had difficulty getting pregnant and I was more worried about miscarriage. There are medical conditions that I knew I'd be more susceptible to because of the continual damage to my intestine.

 

What are some of your favorite gluten-free foods?

Quinoa is powerful for me. It's a complete protein and a knock-it-out-of-the-park home run food. I like Pamela's Products cookies and Mary's Gone Crackers makes a tasty seed and rice snack. I depend on protein bars a lot because I'm on the run so much and am in the process of developing a line of products that are more body friendly. The gluten-free diet opens up whole new avenues of foods to eat. I do not feel deprived. Not at all!

 

Are you doing anything special with your diet during your pregnancy?

I’m definitely eating more and I tend to be even more vigilant, if that's possible. I am extremely careful about staying gluten free during this time. I crave different foods so I am constantly researching new products and ingredients. I think my diet is more varied due to the cravings. I have a much healthier relationship with food when I'm pregnant. I think going through what I went through and feeling so sick for so many years, it changed my perspective on food. Food became less enjoyable, less social for me. It became just something that I needed to get into my body, like fuel to get energy for each day. I had this emotional distance from food because it hurt me. Until I was diagnosed, the food relationship that existed was abusive. It took me a while after my diagnosis to be able to sit down and think, wow, I'm eating this because I actually enjoy it. And I think pregnancy is an incredible factor in that journey for me. I enjoy food again.

 

Do you find you plan more?

When it comes to food planning for the day, I consider myself one of the kids. There are ziplock bags of food for them and for me. We just got back from a little break and I packed snacks for me, just like I do for the kids. And my kids are learning from my diet. My daughter Grace already watches out for me. I'll go to eat something and she'll say, "Mommy, is that gluten free?" Kids are pretty savvy right now about what people can and can't eat. Grace will come home from school and say, "So and so is g-free just like you, Mommy. "

 

What prompted you to talk openly about having celiac disease?

My mom had breast cancer in 1999. She's an attorney, a very independent woman, and she let very few people know about her cancer. She wanted to deal with it on her own. It wasn't until years later when I did a breast cancer walk with her that she saw her cancer as something different. Before that time, it seemed to me as though she felt the disease was seen as a sign of weakness. When she put on that pink shirt and we walked together, I saw that through her disease she found strength. I learned from that and carry that spirit with me. Unafraid to get loud about celiac disease, my hope is that people get the accurate diagnosis they deserve. In the process, it is a pleasure to share the way of eating that I found along the way! LW

 

 

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