Andrea Balzano Tucker
Founder of Baltimore Gluten Free and Co-Leader of Cel-Kids Maryland
FoodASC Member since 2017
Please tell us about yourself and why you are interested in celiac disease.
My name is Andrea Balzano Tucker and I am the founder of Baltimore Gluten Free. I believe all roads in my life have led to my current work. I am a Health Educator by profession; my mission has always been to connect people with reliable, evidence-based information to empower behavior change.
Food as Medicine was, and remains, my mantra. My professional and personal life collided in 2010 when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disease and my daughter with celiac disease within 1 month of each other. At that point, our whole household went gluten free and since that time both my daughter and I have been doing well.
Food literally became our medicine.
Since our diagnoses, my mission has focused on the gluten free and celiac communities.
Please tell us about your organization.
I founded Baltimore Gluten Free as a way to connect the gluten free community – in Baltimore and beyond – with resources and support for healthy gluten free living. I recall years ago being so excited to meet someone locally living gluten free, exchange information about a place to eat or a product only to part ways and lose contact.
I was determined to create a landing spot for building community and sharing information.
Baltimore Gluten Free is that community and it exists both online and in-person. Online resources include the website www.baltimoreglutenfree.com, which is home to my blog, a robust activities calendar and listings of support groups, gluten free restaurants and Celiac Centers. Baltimore Gluten Free can also be found on social media: Face Book, Twitter and Instagram.
Our in-person community includes Cel-Kids: an activity-based support group for kids and families with celiac. We have several yearly meet-ups that include a fun activity (such as bowling, swimming or cookie decorating) plus ongoing resource sharing and support. I also work with the University of Maryland Celiac Center to support their outreach efforts.
Describe a challenging experience you had related to celiac disease and your lessons learned.
The biggest challenge related to my daughter’s celiac diagnosis was finding information for navigating everyday life. We were sent out into the world to “figure it out.” It seemed simple on the surface to only buy and eat gluten free food, however in reality, it requires a high level of vigilance, research and understanding.
Additionally, the psychosocial implications of dietary restrictions are huge. Feelings of isolation, being different and anxiety are real and prevalent in both kids and adults with celiac disease.
When my daughter was first diagnosed, we only knew one other person with a child who had celiac and relied heavily on her for advice. My husband and I quickly realized we needed a special skill set to advocate for and educate our daughter. As a result of these challenges and frustrations, I created Baltimore Gluten Free.
Describe a rewarding experience you had related to celiac disease.
At our last Cel-Kids meet-up, there were a few new families with younger children in attendance. It was so rewarding to see the older kids welcome and engage the younger ones during the activities and meal. The kids sat together and enjoyed decorating cookies and making crafts. There was no discussion of having celiac disease, just the sound of children playing and having fun in a supportive environment.
The kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from such gatherings. The feeling that I’m not the only parent dealing with my child’s diagnosis and that I’m not so different from other parents is huge for me. The friendships and connections formed at such meet ups are invaluable. This the community I always hoped to create!
What motivates you to do what you do?
I am motivated by families I’ve meet who have often had a delay in diagnosis, are told to follow a gluten free diet and sent on their way with minimal support. Many of the families don’t know to schedule annual follow up celiac appointments or where to go for vetted resources. Instead, they are left to learn to advocate in a food-focused world, leaving many confused at best and sick at worst.
I am passionate about helping and connecting the gluten free community to trusted resources. If even one family feels less alone, has an easier time finding qualified medical professionals or is empowered with accurate information, I’ll be happy.
Do you have a go-to resource? If so, what is it and why is it useful?
I recommend Beyond Celiac a not-for-profit dedicated to accelerating research to find new treatments and a cure for celiac disease. They have excellent resources including webinars and videos. They also conduct awareness campaigns such as, Seriously, Celiac Disease, demonstrating how to talk to relatives about getting tested since it’s a hereditary. An exciting new addition is their online community, Go Beyond Celiac. This community was created by and for people with celiac to share experiences and stories. This type of information sharing will be used to advance research.
What do you wish other people knew about celiac disease and what’s one action that can be performed to increase knowledge and awareness in the general population?
I wish other people knew that gluten sensitivity and celiac disease have over 200 symptoms from migraines to brain fog to infertility. People often think GI issues have to be present or are the only symptoms. If this was more widely known, people could discuss with their physicians whether or not they should have the celiac disease blood panel test, an initial step in diagnosis. So many people have spent years suffering with multiple symptoms without a diagnosis who could have been spared the misery.
The one action that’s pivotal to increasing understanding and awareness is speaking up! I take every opportunity to educate others about celiac disease. Whether I’m in line at the grocery store and someone asks me about a product or speaking to the parent of my daughter’s friend, I educate others. I find that most people are curious so don’t be afraid to share what you know!
What advice would you give to someone just embarking upon this journey?
I have 3 pieces of advice:
- Connect! Find out if there are local support groups and if not, consider starting your own.
- Get treatment if possible, (even if you’ve already been diagnosed), from a celiac center. They often have comprehensive services (i.e. dieticians, psychologists) in-house and offer the highest standard of care and follow-up to insure healing. There are a list of centers across the country on the resource page of my website.
- Rely on trusted resources for information and always do your own research.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
Together we are stronger. I am continually learning from the community and love to connect with others! Whether you have celiac disease, food allergies or food sensitivities, please consider joining us.
UPDATE: Andrea discusses the challenges of eating out with celiac and highlights restaurants in Baltimore that are gluten free in the Baltimore Sun’s article 9 entirely gluten-free Baltimore restaurants.
Thank you Andrea for being part of our Member Spotlight! Have any more questions for Andrea? Ask them in the comments below.
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