If Lyndhurst resident Melissa Van Riper wants a night out to eat with her husband, friends or family, her options aren't very plentiful locally. It's not that Lyndhurst doesn't have any good restaurants; you could throw a stone and probably hit one decent eatery or another offering everything from Chinese and Italian to Portuguese fare and Turkish cuisine. The problem is Van Riper has Celiac disease and unless a restaurant has a gluten-free menu, she doesn't dare go near it.
"I travel for gluten-free," said Van Riper, who is 27 weeks pregnant with her first child and fears her daughter will also have Celiac disease, which is a genetic disorder. "We go to Boonton, we go to Pompton Lakes, we go to all these places that have gluten-free food."
Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. When Celiac sufferers eat foods containing gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley, it destroys the intestine's nutrient absorbing lining, or villi. If a person with Celiac eats gluten he or she suffers severe stomach pains, and prolonged gluten intake can cause malnutrition, no matter how much someone eats.
Adhering to a gluten-free diet is essentially the only way to tame Celiac disease's effects, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. About one in 133 people have it and many don't know it. Van Riper was diagnosed just over a year ago, having been through about 10 doctors before one actually performed a genetic blood test and colonoscopy to give her the proper diagnosis after years of suffering from severe stomach woes.
"I could have had it my whole life. I was gastrointestinal sick for seven years," said Van Riper. "Because I was so young, no one ever did a colonoscopy. People can have bloating, eat something and it doesn't agree with them; you keep getting stomachaches and may not know that you may have a genetic disease."
Lyndhurst's Health Administrator Joyce Jacobson, after hearing Van Riper's story, wants to do something about the problem. When Van Riper called about a month ago asking how she could obtain her marriage license, she also wanted to talk to someone about gluten-free awareness. Jacobson answered the call and found the issue confounding, but noteworthy, because the health department was in the midst of holding food handling courses. In her two previous classes with 42 attendees, not one, she said, offered anything gluten-free at their eateries. She had Van Riper come in and speak to the third class of 15 to inform them about the benefits of offering a gluten-free menu option. The two are now going to embark on an awareness campaign starting with an open community support group in May to any residents of Lyndhurst and surrounding communities that have Celiac or want to know more about it. Then they want to bring evidence to restaurants that Celiac is more common than thought and restaurants would benefit from offering gluten-free menu options.
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