GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - When 37-year-old Grand Junction resident Angela Wetzel's father was diagnosed with celiac disease three-and-a-half years ago, the doctor suggested his family members be tested for it, too. Why? In those suffering from the disorder, celiac disease creates an overactive autoimmune response to the presence of gluten, causing a variety of health issues - from digestive discomfort to fibromyalgia and osteoporosis. It's not a food allergy, and there's a high instance of the disease occurring in those from the same bloodline."I tested and came back positive," Wetzel said, and cutting gluten completely from her diet proved quite difficult at first.That's because traces of gluten hide in a variety of food products you wouldn't normally consider, like gum and even soy sauce. So, not long after going gluten-free, Wetzel decided to form a support group for Grand Valley locals living with celiac disease. Members meet monthly to share recipes and restaurant recommendations, as well as other daily stresses from dealing with the disorder."We had our first meeting in November (2012)," Wetzel said, and the number of folks attending the group has grown each month. "Eight people met in December and 26 came to the meeting in January. That's a significant jump."Gluten Free Grand Valley also has a support group on Facebook, and as of Jan. 23 it had 92 members.While many people without gluten issues do go on gluten-free diets because it's seen as a healthy way to eat, the Gluten Free Grand Valley support group mainly focuses on the issues surrounding people diagnosed with celiac disease and severe wheat allergies."We talk about our journeys, and the things we struggle with health-wise," Wetzel said. "When we make a switch in diet like that, there's emotional and mental impacts. It's not an easy lifestyle change. So many people feel so alone.""We want to educate the public, as well as support each other," she added.
Hot topics at Gluten Free Grand Valley meetings and on Facebook often surround specific brands of food and places to dine out.Wetzel said it can be very difficult to eat at a restaurant or at a friend's house when on a strict gluten-free diet. Cross-contamination - when a gluten-free food comes in contact with another food item containing gluten - may happen by simply putting food in the same fryer or on the same plate. A gluten-free pizza being cooked in the same oven as regular pizzas could also cause issues in someone with celiac. Plus, gluten can hide in the most obscure product.That's why reading food labels is always important, and traveling with one's own gluten-free food may be the only option sometimes when keeping a strict diet."It's not just an inconvenience with the wait staff at a restaurant," Gluten Free Grand Valley member Jackie Aguilar said, who noted that living with celiac disease can be like dealing with a dangerous peanut allergy.Even so, Dr. Dan Thompson, a Community Hospital physician who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1994, said there are many more options for folks going gluten-free now as compared to 20 years ago."The (food) choices that we get are so much better," he said. "I could give you a gluten-free brownie and you'd think it tasted better than a regular brownie."Plus, many restaurants are taking steps to ensure that food offered is truly gluten-free by being aware of cross-contamination risks during the preparation process. Wetzel said communication with a restaurant's staff, friends and family is key to keeping up the diet.Terri Thompson - Dr. Thompson's wife and a diabetes- and nutrition-education educator with Community Hospital - suggests cooking from scratch, as that makes it easier to have tasty food without gluten.Learn which brands contain gluten, she added, and read labels every time you plan to eat something.Shopping for gluten-free products just became easier, too. Sprouts Farmers Market recently opened in Grand Junction, and Wetzel said she was like a kid in a candy store with all the gluten-free items available. Dr. Thompson also recommends Fisher's Meat Market for tasty gluten-free options."They don't use a lot of packaged foods," he said.The next Gluten Free Grand Valley meeting will be held 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6., at the Goodwill store community room, 630 24 1/2 Road. Wetzel said the group is currently looking for a more permanent location.For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.