Celiac disease changes Latina’s lifestyle

Lilian Camey preparing a gluten-free Latin-American meal. |  Photo by Kaan Kut

Lilian Camey preparing a gluten-free Latin-American meal. | Photo by Kaan Kut

When Lilian Camey was in her late twenties preparing to start a family, celiac disease wasn’t anywhere on her radar. Born in Guatemala and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, Camey had always enjoyed a traditional Latin American diet, including burrito-based meals, until she was diagnosed with celiac disease two years ago.

On the evening Camey received the test results, she had planned to have pasta for dinner. Once the doctor explained that she was allergic to anything containing wheat, Camey’s first response was pragmatic: “What am I going to cook for dinner now?”

According to the Canadian Celiac Association (CCA), celiac disease is a condition where the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged by gluten. As a result, the intestine is unable to absorb such vital nutrients as minerals, protein and vitamins. Common symptoms of celiac disease include weight loss, fatigue, cramps, chronic diarrhea and bloating. Although Camey found the diagnosis initially shocking, she looked forward to relief from years of unexplained abdominal pain, fatigue and anemia.

The CCA explains that treatment requires strict adherence to a gluten-free diet, which means eliminating products that naturally contain gluten such as wheat, spelt and kamut, as well as products cross-contaminated with gluten during processing. The gravity of this lifestyle change did not weigh in until Camey stopped by Safeway on her way home and realized many ingredient lists contained gluten.

Giving up gluten

Husband Kaan Kut explains the change was difficult at first. “We didn’t know what she could eat. But it just takes time until you can find the alternatives. Anything that is manufactured, even some gums, you have to look online because it might not say on the label. If it is not online, we call them to make sure,” says Kut.

Looking forward to a family in the future, Kut understands the importance of maintaining a strict gluten-free diet in the household.

“I eat almost 99% glutenfree. I eat regular bread, but we separate it because of cross-contamination. Other than that, everything else is gluten free,” says Kut.

Celiac disease was new to Camey’s parents, who quickly adjusted to the new routine.

“When I went back home, they separated my cutting boards and frying pans, and my mom bought new baking dishes. My dad actually felt bad and tried to hide when he would eat stuff,” says Camey.

Since food is a focal point in Latin American culture, Camey had to make gluten-free adjustments at traditional ceremonies.

“At weddings or Quinceañeras cake and food is important, but if I know there aren’t going to be gluten-free options I will bring my own food and cake,” says Camey.

She used to attend Catholic mass and skip communion, although now gluten-free communion is available at her church, adds Camey.

She avoids traditional Latin American treats like pastries, but is still able to enjoy many of the dishes that are naturally glutenfree.

“Mainly I make my meals without the spices, which I have to be careful of. I can still have anything that is made from corn, like tamales, tortillas and enchiladas. You have to adjust,” says Camey.

Gluten-free alternatives

Camey enjoys many gluten-free bakeries and restaurants, including Baru Latino, a traditional restaurant that is 95% glutenfree. However, whenever there is a possible cross-contamination, Camey refrains from eating the meal.

Those new to gluten-free eating can find restaurants online at The Celiac Scene, a guide started by Ellen Bayens to help those suffering from the condition. Bayens agrees that cross-contamination is a real challenge when eating out.

“Thirty percent of inherently gluten-free flours like quinoa and chickpea flour are cross-contaminated with wheat,” says Bayens.

Bayens says that about 5 per cent of restaurants on The Celiac Scene are Mexican or Latin American.

“When you have a culture where their food is predominantly corn-based, that is a huge advantage. The culture is welcoming and it is food oriented – these restaurants are accommodating to gluten-free needs,” says Bayens.

Over the past two years, Camey has turned tough lessons into tried-and-true advice.

“If you are diagnosed, it is okay to go through the process of grieving. Know that you aren’t the only one, there are a lot of us out there and there are associations to help.  Get knowledge – it’s a lifestyle change,” says Camey.


White Bean Soup


2 cups white beans rinsed,

soaked, drained

5 cups water

4 garlic cloves pressed

4 tbsp. olive oil

1 white onion chopped

1 celery stalk chopped

1 red pepper chopped

4 tomatoes chopped

¼ cup fresh cilantro chopped

Salt to taste


1. Pressure cook beans with water and 2 garlic gloves until tender (about 5–10 minutes)

2. In large pot, heat olive oil on medium-high and add onions, celery and remaining garlic until golden.

3. Reduce heat to medium and add pepper, cilantro and tomatoes. Cook for 5 minutes.

4. Add beans and cooking liquid, boiling ingredients then reducing to simmer.

5. Stir occasionally for 5–10 minutes, add salt to taste and serve.