Today we are shining the Spotlight on Ashley Gismondi, also known as ‘Celiac and the 6ix’. Ashley works as a full-time Enforcement and Outreach Officer for a regulatory body in Toronto and lives with her boyfriend and dog, Frankie (an adorable goldendoodle who she often posts about on her Instagram feed). Ashley enjoys baking and is a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ashley is an amazing resource for others living with celiac disease and has the most delicious Instagram feed!
The Gut Gazette (TGG): When were you diagnosed with celiac disease?
Ashley Gismondi (AG): I was diagnosed as a teenager at 17.
TGG: How were you diagnosed?
AG: My allergist started running a series of tests on me shortly after a referral from my physician, including the Celiac Disease Panel (blood test). The results from the test confirmed my diagnosis.
TGG: What types of symptoms were you presenting that made you seek a diagnosis?
AG: During my teenage years, I went through a period of unexplained weight loss despite not making changes to my diet or exercise routine. I also felt tired during class, despite getting a proper amount of sleep each night. I felt nauseated after eating and couldn’t find a solution to the breakouts/rashes I would get on my neck. Time and time again my physician, who was quite uneducated on celiac disease at the time, kept telling me I had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) but I didn’t quite buy that diagnosis. After falling ill on a vacation with my family I finally was able to convince my doctor to send me to an allergist for answers.
TGG: When you went gluten free, did you know where to start? What products to look for, etc.?
AG: At the time of my diagnosis, it was quite difficult to grasp what exactly I was dealing with. All I remember the allergist saying to me is that I would have to avoid gluten for life. I barely even knew what gluten was, but I eventually came to understand that a lifestyle change would allow me to heal and not cause further damage. Sadly, health professionals did not connect me up with a nutritionist or dietician to guide me with these new lifestyle changes. In the beginning, there were no Facebook support groups and limited literature available for me and my family. There was a lot of trial and error in finding out the hidden sources of gluten too – such as candy, dressings, sauces, etc. In my early days as a celiac, it was quite restrictive, especially since restaurants weren’t well educated at the time. I got sick quite often and hanging out with friends wasn’t fun at all.
TGG: What is your favourite gluten free food?
AG: Anything naturally gluten free such as fruits, veggies and rice. However, if I had to pick a particular product that I really enjoy, my favourite item is definitely the Enjoy Life chocolate chunks. I bake with them, but on occasion I also keep them at my desk at the office just in case I need a little chocolate pick me up. They’re amazing and free of several top allergens!
TGG: Does your family live a gluten free lifestyle as well?
AG: I currently live with my boyfriend and I would say our home is 95% gluten free. The toaster is dedicated but I do allow him to purchase his own cereal, cookies and cook regular pasta when I’m not home provided he cleans the items he used thoroughly.
TGG: What advice can you give someone who is just starting out on a gluten free diet?
AG: To not be alarmed and to remember that you’re not alone out there. There are a lot of people that are living with celiac disease all over the world. We are one big support network. It is also not the end of the world. Don’t focus on what you can’t have, focus on the foods you can consume safely.
TGG: Do you have a favourite gluten free restaurant in Toronto?
AG: Planta! It is a fully vegan restaurant and mostly gluten free as well. Staff at Planta have a good understanding of what celiac disease means and will always highlight the safe options on their menu. I also think Riz (Yonge St.) is a unique restaurant worth mentioning because they offer a ton of Asian dishes that people with celiac typically don’t get to enjoy – such as tempura, dumplings and deep-fried ice cream.
TGG: What’s your best tip for traveling with celiac disease?
AG: Do a lot of research in advance of your trip to locate any gluten free restaurants and/or grocery stores that carry gluten free products. Bring a lot of snacks just in case you are unable to locate a safe option in a reasonable amount of time or if your gluten free meal request on the plane somehow gets “lost”. If I am going to a country where the native language is not English, I make sure to bring a translated card describing what celiac disease is and how to prepare me a safe meal. I recently went to Thailand and did not get sick once so it is possible to travel halfway around the world while avoiding gluten!
TGG: How do you go about avoiding cross contamination?
AG: For me, the hardest part is worrying about cross-contamination. If an establishment fails to handle your food properly, it can make for quite an uncomfortable night out. Believe me when I say it happens, and when it does it’s quite unpleasant. To avoid cross-contamination, I generally tend to dine at restaurants that other people with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance have recommended to me. Nowadays, I feel that there is a greater awareness of food allergies and autoimmune diseases, like celiac disease, and for the most part, many establishments take it seriously. Regardless, I always communicate to my server and/or manager that I have celiac disease and they do their best to communicate to kitchen staff about preparing my dish safely, omitting ingredients when necessary. Never be afraid to ask questions or return a dish if you are weary about how your meal was prepared.
TGG: What happens when you have gluten by accident?
AG: Oh, it really sucks. I can only speak for myself and how I react, but within half an hour after consuming gluten I generally wind up in the washroom several times. Other times I feel quite bloated and nauseous. Usually the next day I feel a bit sluggish too. I’ve heard through discussions with some of my other gluten free friends that sometimes they’ve been violently ill, whereas other times they’ve been asymptomatic but damage is still going on internally.
TGG: How do you recover after a flare?
AG: Something what works for me is simply letting it pass through my system, while keeping hydrated with water and peppermint tea. Sometimes probiotics and a hearty bowl of soup with veggies also help to calm a queasy tummy. I tend to just rest my body after being glutened as it leaves me feeling a bit worn out.
TGG: How long does your flare after ingesting gluten last?
AG: For me I would say I get affected for about two to three days. I remember when I was in university, I often would have to head home and miss lectures if I got glutened.
TGG: Do you have any favourite gluten free beauty products?
AG: I use a variety of products on my skin but lately I’ve been trying out Pure Anada and Consonant. Both lines are natural, made in Canada and gluten free.
TGG: Anything else you’d like to share?
AG: Do not be afraid to travel with celiac disease! There are so many blogs, social media pages and websites dedicated to finding gluten free food anywhere in the world. Do your research ahead of time and just enjoy the different culinary tastes that your travels have to offer. Trust me, the memories and experiences are worth it!
*A reminder that everyone’s experiences are their own. What might work for one person may not work for someone else. Everyone is on their own journey but it’s always comforting to learn about someone else who is living a similar one.