If there’s one thing people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can learn from Kathy, it’s that having these conditions has never felt so empowering.

Mediaplanet When did you discover you had celiac disease?
Kathy Smart I’ve been a celiac since I was 12 years old and I’m going to be 36, so you can kind of do the math. I’ve been a celiac for quite a long time — before it was known or talked about very much.

MP What happened after you were diagnosed?
KS I realized how if I changed what I ate, I could change my life and I could do the things I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to help and teach everybody about how they could live healthy and live gluten-free — and if they’re dealing with food allergies that they’re not alone.

MP What is the difference between celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
KS First thing is, celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. So, when you eat gluten, it’s not that the gluten is damaging things, it’s your body’s reaction to the gluten. Your immune system reacts by damaging the small, little villi in your small intestine, making it flat. So, a person with celiac disease will have a lot of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. For gluten sensitivity, when an individual eats gluten, the body reacts not as an autoimmune disease, but as an inflammation — their tummy will be sore, and they’ll have inflammatory symptoms, perhaps in their joints. The key difference is that one is autoimmune, and the other is an inflammatory reaction.

MP What should someone do if they suspect they have celiac disease?
KS The last thing they should do is go gluten-free. Because you need to be tested by your doctor and that test is only valid if you’ve been eating the gluten protein. So if someone suspects they’re celiac, get tested. If it comes back negative and you feel better being gluten-free, perhaps you have an intolerance. I’d say go 30 days gluten-free, see if you feel better. Your body will tell you.

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MP You’re always on the go-how do you travel, eat well, and stay healthy?
KS The way I travel gluten-free is that I have little snacks with me. I’ll have little packages of almonds, I’ll have little containers of tuna, I’ll have little nut bars, I’ll travel with little vegetable juices — I prepare for it. I even came out with my own breakfast cereal line because I noticed breakfast is really hard when you have celiac disease. So I just prepare for it. I pack for it. As soon as I land, no matter where I am, I always find a grocery store and I get fresh fruits, fresh veggies, I look for proteins, nuts, and seeds and I’m good.

Kathy Smart
Photo: Nathan Legiehn

MP For many people, having a gluten-free diet can take a lot of time preparing meals and shopping for the right foods. What advice do you have?
KS Keep it simple. Even in your meals: some steamed broccoli, some chicken baked in some honey — keep things simple. “Back to basics,” I like to tell people. You can cook healthy meals in 20 minutes, that’s what I do. You can prep ahead of time. Take a Sunday, one or two hours,  and make all your meals up. You’ll be eating healthier, and you’ll feel better too.

MP What advice do you have for Canadians living with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity?
KS The advice I would give you is to have fun. That might sound bizarre, but have fun trying new foods and thinking outside of the box. Use black beans to make brownies. Use avocados to make pudding. See it as a way to take back your health and take back your life. How awesome is it that you have a disease that you actually have a cure for? The cure is eating delicious, healthy, gluten-free foods. I think that’s fantastic.