#MyBlogLife: STELLAR Meets Fiona McCartan AKA Gluten Free Fi
Fiona McCartan fills us in on all things gluten-free and shows us the gorgeous things she's still able to indulge in.
When did you realise you were a coeliac?
I was diagnosed as coeliac two and a half years ago. This was after seven years of undergoing tests, being wrongly diagnosed and given trial medications to ‘help’ my symptoms. At one stage, I was taking 28 tablets a day.
What were your symptoms?
I was tired and sluggish all of the time, my stomach and bowels were so inflamed that I had severe stomach cramps, along with vomiting and diarrhoea with everything I ate, rather than just gluten-containing foods. I could sometimes eat a piece of bread and be fine, and then a few days later eat the same type of bread and be ridiculously ill. This is a result of the auto-immune disease, the more gluten you eat, the more inflamed a coeliac’s bowel will become – it builds up in your system and has an erratic response.
I’m normally a really happy person, but I felt rotten and I couldn’t shake the feeling. My symptoms ended up making me feel really down. My doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me, which made me think that there was no solution and I was going to have to deal with it for the rest of my life. When the doctors suggested steroids, I knew that something else had to be done.
Is becoming a coeliac what made you start your food blog?
Yes! After years of illness and damage to my body, I knew that it was time to get really serious about taking care of myself and my health. By making the change to gluten free, I wanted to continue to eat food that I loved without feeling limited.
When I met people who followed a gluten-free diet, I was really shocked to learn how restricted their diets were. I wanted to share my journey with other people on a gluten-free diet and let them see the varied, balance diet they could have, while still really enjoying food.
What do you think makes your blog so successful?
I don’t think I know the answer myself. In less than two years, I have gained almost 30,000 followers on Instagram and have an avid following on my blog. If I help even one person, then I have achieved what I wanted to do!
Do you find it difficult eating out?
Originally it was difficult, not knowing which restaurants were good at catering for gluten free . Now I’ll go to the restaurants that are really accommodating. My favourite is James Street South in Belfast, N.Ireland – it was recently crowned the best restaurant in Ireland.
What changes did you notice in yourself after you gave up gluten?
It takes two to three months for your stomach and bowels to heal themselves from the effects of gluten if you’re coeliac. When I gave up gluten, I noticed that after about a month I had a lot more energy. With my added energy I joined the gym, did more yoga and got a little personal trainer…. my dog, Bruiser. The bloating I had (in my stomach, face, etc) completely vanished and I was so much happier. I can’t even tell you what an incredible feeling health is. To have it is such a gift.
Is gluten bad for us?
If you’re coeliac or have a gluten sensitivity, then yes. Eating gluten when coeliac can cause bowel cancer, that’s why it’s so important to try and get a diagnosis quickly. If you don’t have a sensitivity to gluten, then there’s no need to cut it out of your diet.
Should we associate becoming gluten free with weight loss?
Absolutely not. It shouldn’t be used as an option to lose weight. Gluten free alternatives, such as bread, biscuits, etc. are mostly higher in fat and sugar. ‘Gluten-free’ definitely doesn’t mean ‘calorie free’. However, when you’re gluten-free, you have to give more consideration to your diet. You automatically become a ‘mindful eater’, because you have to think about everything you’re going to eat and plan ahead.
Some people think being gluten-free is a bit of a fad. That must be annoying for you as a genuine coeliac?
It’s funny, some people will try to empathise with me, claiming they can’t eat bread either and will follow up by devouring a plate of pasta with no ill effects. That can be frustrating. At least there’s more awareness now about the disease.
Is being a coeliac expensive?
It can be. If you’re buying off-the-shelf gluten free products, they can be over five times the price of a standard product. For the majority of my diet though, I try to eat whole, unrefined and naturally gluten-free foods. Most food in the free from aisle contains a lot of preservatives, so I try to avoid it stopping only for a weekly hit of gluten-free jaffa cakes. I buy a lot of fruit, vegetables and meat and try to keep it seasonal.
Give us an example of your daily diet?
Breakfast: Gluten-free porridge with almond milk, mixed berries, honey and cinnamon.
Snacks: Peanut butter (organic, and on anything!)
Lunch: A warm salad with spinach, crispy kale, plum tomatoes, sliced avocado, spring onions, bacon and topped with a poached egg.
Dinner: Garlic, chilli & lemon prawn pasta
What’s your favourite gluten-free meal?
Sushi – I can eat it day or night and in abundance.
Favourite gluten-free snacks or treats?
I was born in Johannesburg and my baby food was mashed avocado, picked straight from the tree in our garden. It’s difficult to beat mashed avocado. Especially when it’s made into guacamole and spooned onto a plate of loaded nachos!
What about alcohol, can we drink it if we’re coeliac?
I can confidently say yes! Not all alcohol, but enough. There are plenty of gluten-free beers, ciders and a lot of spirits available. Spirits is where it all gets a bit tricky though – it’s mostly about what kind of distillation process they go through. So rum, gin and tequila are normally fine and if you find triple distilled vodka, it is normally good too. All wine is gluten-free too! I’m pleased to say that the safest drink if you are gluten-free is actually Champagne. I keep my fridge fully stocked.
What’s next for you and your blog?
I’m planning to start a new travel section on my blog. It will offer people advice on where to eat in different cities and general advice on gluten-free travel and how to prepare for it. I’m also looking into different nutrition courses. Finally, I want to create videos for my recipes.
How do you make your photos look so professional?
I have a great Canon SLR that does a lot of the work for me, but I’m still learning how to use it. I try my best to use natural light, which becomes a challenge during an Irish winter! I never use a pop-up flash because it makes the image look too harsh and I don’t use any fancy editing tools. Food is a nice subject to photograph – the variety of colours and textures make for an appetising shot!
Any tips for other food bloggers taking off?
Be yourself. It’s a cliché, but a good one to follow. There are incredible bloggers out there, but if you follow them, you will notice that they’re all different.
It does help to be a little obsessed with food. Passion is everything and you won’t stay focused or active on a food blog unless you really love it.
People don’t just eat healthy food. Remember that as good as a beetroot brownie might be, sometimes people just want to get their teeth around something that is several hundred calories and delicious! Don’t be afraid of sharing dirty treats.
Finally, be creative and original. Don’t recreate recipes. By experimenting with new flavours and ingredients you haven’t tried before, you can sometimes strike lucky and have invented a new dish!
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