In 2007, Jia Singh cultivated a habit of reading food packets in Australia. Whether it was a bottle of salad dressing or wrapper of a nutrition bar, the 24-year-old undergraduate student would look closely at every word printed under ‘ingredients’ before consuming it. When she returned to Delhi in 2010, a degree from University of New South Wales in Sydney was not all she brought home. She also got along this obsession. Her friends would glower at her, but her family understood the anxiety. In Australia, she had been diagnosed with ‘gluten intolerance’.
Singh and others like her cannot eat wheat and grains like rye and barley—staples in most diets. Gluten intolerance often goes undetected, as its symptoms are curable afflictions such as diarrhoea and abdominal, bone and joint pains. Its most extreme form is the Celiac disease, which causes severe weight loss and can damage the intestines. Since the symptoms of gluten intolerance are part of normal life, there is little awareness of the condition in India. “Even among doctors, we look at Celiac as a typical abdominal, diarrhoeal, loose stool, malabsorption kind of thing,” says Dr Ambarish Mithal, an endocrinologist at Indrapras- tha Apollo Hospitals, in Cure Is The Cause, a short film on the disease made by the Celiac Society of Delhi. “The suspicion index is not very high and therefore these cases are often diagnosed late.”
Singh had shown symptoms of gluten intolerance well before she was diagnosed with it. At 17, while still a high school student at Mayo College, Ajmer, she weighed just 36 kg despite her demonstrable excellence in the field of gluttony. It made life at high school frustrating for Singh. “My friends teased me by saying I was bulimic or anorexic because they didn’t understand what was wrong,” she says. “My principal sent me home for a week because she thought I was depressed because of all the teasing and because she wanted me to gain weight.”
Frustration was what Sangeeta Nagar, a 28-year-old housewife in Faridabad, felt when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance four years ago. The doctor told her that if she continued eating gluten-based food, she’d get cancer. “I went into depression for two years,” Nagar says. “I stopped eating, didn’t feel like doing anything.” Like all good husbands, Nagar’s took his wife on a holiday to Europe to cheer her up. There, the couple discovered gluten-free cakes and cookies that pulled Mrs Nagar out of depression—but only temporarily. The frustration returned when she was pregnant with their first child. “I used to get cravings for golgappas and patties and even something as normal as bread-and-butter, but I couldn’t eat it,” she says. The agony did not end with her pregnancy. When she has to visit friends and relatives for meals, she informs them in advance of her dietary restrictions. They are often bewildered. “It’s a real struggle,” Nagar says. “Whenever they hear of my condition, they’re like, ‘How do you survive?’”
While Singh and Nagar were medically diagnosed with gluten intolerance, it was the internet that helped this retired corporate executive recognise his ailment as Celiac disease in 2008. He does not want to reveal his name for a peculiar reason: “I have this paranoia that if someone knows I have gluten intolerance, they’d be tempted to test it out and feed me things surreptitiously.” A resident of Almora, Uttarakhand, he had a chronic gastric problem and medication only gave him temporary relief. He logged on to the website of Mayo Clinic, a US-based medical research website, and used its ‘symptom checker’ to identify his condition. It threw up an 88 per cent probability of Celiac. “Being in Almora, which is a remote area, I couldn’t get the transglutanimase enzyme test that had to be done,” says the retired executive, “So I just gave up wheat products altogether and there was immediate improvement.” Being Celiac means he plays inspector whenever he goes out for a meal. “I sometimes even check the kitchen [of the restaurant] in case things are mixed,” he says. “If it’s a South Indian restaurant, you’re almost certain to get gluten-free food, except for rava dosa or sheera. In Chinese restaurants, you have to avoid foods cooked in soya sauce, because it usually has wheat as an ingredient.”
At home, his rotis are made with millets such as bajra and ragi, or soya and corn. They are made before the rest of the family’s food is prepared to avoid contamination. If the household grocery budget has not bloated, it is because his diet has a lot of inexpensive coarse grains. “Luckily, we are in India. Gluten-free foods, including upwaas (fasting) foods, as well as rice, maize, daals, beans and millets, are readily available.”
There are also people who adopt wheat-free diet plans on their own—as a way to lose weight. Kishi Arora, who runs Foodaholics bakery in New Delhi, has been on a gluten-free dinner diet for a month. “I don’t think I’ve lost weight but I do feel lighter and more active,” she says. “I crave roti at night sometimes but then my laddoo face makes me say ‘no beta’.” Arora plans to stick to a gluten-free dinner diet until the end of the year.
Jia Singh, however, has to live with the medical condition for life. It inspired her to start Petite Sweet Eats, a gluten-free dessert service. “I can make you a gluten-free cake that tastes as good as any,” she says. “The only thing it differs in is consistency. The one with gluten will always be fluffier.” Her diet at home includes besan rotis and fruits. Occasionally she eats red and black rice. “I haven’t eaten a single roti in the last seven years and I can exercise for three hours a day, no problem,” she says. “There is a misconception in India that if you don’t eat roti or rice, you are not going to have energy.”
Among the other things Singh has had to sacrifice is alcohol. A visit to an Indian restaurant means that she has to content herself with tikkas, daal and the odd besan roti. “My friends hate it, but often, I eat enormous amounts of fish or meat without any roti,” she says. “It works to my advantage. Everyone is like, ‘Dude, we had a whole tandoori chicken and six naans and we got fat but you didn’t’.”