When she was told she had celiac disease, a digestive disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food, she had no idea what she needed to do next to feel better. Now she's living a healthy, gluten-free life and she's founded a charity, Jennifer's Way Foundation for Celiac Education. Here's our Q&A with the actress.
SheKnows: Had you heard much about celiac disease before your diagnosis?
Jennifer Esposito: No, I never heard of celiac disease before my diagnosis, which is frightening [considering] that I was with a gastroenterologist for five years where I was being treated for every other stomach disorder under the sun. He never once thought to mention celiac disease.
Every piece of food requires 'interrogation'
SheKnows: How has living with the disease changed your life? People with celiac disease are unable to tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley.
"There are way too many people suffering as I did for years, not knowing what is wrong with them. It’s not right."
Jennifer Esposito: Freedom is the first word that comes to mind. Eating is a necessity in life. I am faced with this disease at least three times a day no matter what. Before being diagnosed with celiac disease, I would go on spontaneous vacations, stop in a deli to grab something or try a new restaurant without a thought. Now, every piece of food must be interrogated, so to speak. On the positive side, this disease has brought me to what I believe is my purpose at this point in my life: To be able to put a face and voice to this very misunderstood disease is so very important to me. There are way too many people suffering as I did for years, not knowing what is wrong with them. It’s not right.
SheKnows: How has living with the disease affected your career?
Jennifer Esposito: When I was diagnosed, I actually quit acting. I can’t say that I ever felt at peace in the business I had chosen to dedicate my life to. So when I was diagnosed, my body and soul were just too tired to take care of myself in the way I needed and to try to be in a business that has always been an uphill battle for me. Today, I’m more at peace with the amount of acting I’m doing because my true love is creating recipes for my soon-to-be bakery, my foundation — Jennifer’s Way Foundation for Celiac Education — and my blog, Jennifer’s Way, at jennifersway.org.
Gluten 'hidden' in medications
SheKnows: The biggest challenge for you to living gluten-free?
Jennifer Esposito: There are many. One that really bothers me is the lack of concern by drug companies. I had to go on an antibiotic recently and the lack of knowledge out there about gluten in medication is astounding. Why it isn’t mandatory to list ingredients in medication, like they do in food, is beyond me. Again, you are left to your own devices to figure out if a certain medication is safe. Hopefully, this is one of the things I will try to make a difference in with my foundation.
SheKnows: Naturally gluten-free whole foods include rice, soy, potatoes, beans and grains such as millet and buckwheat. What are your gluten-free favorites?
Jennifer Esposito: There are too many to list. I do know that I’ve taken my cooking and baking to a whole new level. I was always a "wanna-be chef" but now I make everything from bread to pizza to muffins to cookies. They are mostly vegan, delicious and packed with nutrition. I’ve also discovered a new-found love for naturally gluten-free whole foods.
Not sure? Don't eat it
SheKnows:. Words of encouragement?
"If you are not sure about something, don't eat it. It’s better to be safe than sorry later. "
Jennifer Esposito: My advice to a new celiac is to be kind to yourself. It’s not always easy. Your body and mind need time to heal and adjust. There are people out there who quickly feel better after taking gluten out of their diet and then there are people, like me, who don’t. It takes time and it does get better, this new life. Another piece of advice when eating out, if you are not sure about something, don't eat it. It’s better to be safe than sorry later. And please don’t think you can cheat. It takes one-eighth of a teaspoon of gluten to get a [person with] celiac [disease] sick. It’s just not worth it.
More on gluten-free living
Do you have celiac disease?
When gluten is hazardous to your health
Gluten-intolerance: Diagnosis and treatment
Photo credit: Marco Sagliocco/PR Photos