Gluten-Free Expo Draws Crowds
Registered dietitian Tina Renick knows the challenges of following a gluten-free diet. Her daughter, Anna, was diagnosed with celiac disease just after she turned 3.
Anna suffered from “failure to thrive,” a term used for children and babies whose weight and growth lag far behind normal. “She never wanted to eat, she’d wake up crying and just seemed in distress,” Tina recalls. “That stopped one week after we eliminated gluten from her diet.”
Patients with celiac disease have an intolerance to gluten—found most often in wheat, barley, and rye—that causes damage and scarring in the small intestine. “Celiac disease is very common. As many as 1 in 135 people have it,” says Michael Hart, M.D., Carilion Clinic chief of pediatric gastroenterology.
“There’s no cure, but it’s very controllable by eliminating gluten from the diet,” he says.
Tina, a dietitian with Carilion for 13 years, emphasizes that celiac disease is not the same as an allergy or gluten sensitivity. “This isn’t the sort of diet where you can cheat and sneak a bit here or there. Even a few morsels can damage the small intestine.”
Although gluten is commonly associated with cereals, breads, and pasta, it also lurks in myriad condiments, commercial foods, and beverages. As Tina struggled to find appropriate foods for her daughter, she reached out to others with celiac disease and began sharing information and providing education about the disease.
“It’s easy to feel isolated,” she says. “You feel like you can’t eat out, and you really have to plan ahead if you’re traveling. The specialty foods can be really expensive, and we threw away a lot of stuff because it tasted so bad.”
In 2007, Tina started a kids’ group that centered around having potlucks where parents and children could sample gluten-free packaged foods and share tips and recipes. The popularity of those meetings inspired Tina to think even bigger.
“Last year, Tina pretty much single-handedly planned a Gluten-Free Expo at Tanglewood Mall that attracted hundreds of people,” Dr. Hart says. “Gluten-free diets have gained a lot of appeal, and not just for people with celiac disease. It can also reduce symptoms in patients with Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other auto-immune illnesses.”
This year, Carilion Clinic and Kroger sponsored a second expo on April 13 that drew more than 400 people. Assisted by student interns in Virginia Tech’s dietetics program, Tina enlisted 18 vendors and restaurants that shared their gluten-free foods.
“The response was overwhelming—people sharing stories, sampling foods,” Tina says. “It’s a great outlet for education and for people to see that they’re not alone. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Alison Weaver is a freelance writer based in Roanoke. Her work has appeared in Valley Business Front, The Roanoke Times, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Redbook, and Seventeen magazine.