Coeliacs vs Vegans: no contest

Coeliac disease is not the same as veganism. Let’s get that out of the way from the off, shall we.

It should be as obvious as coeliac disease is not carrots, is not cinema; and veganism is not Venezuela, is not a vase.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease; veganism is an ethical ideology.

But living as a coeliac shares some — some — parallels with living as a vegan.

There are differences; there are similarities; they are therefore comparable, in some ways.

It shouldn’t be too controversial to suggest that having fewer choices than the general population when dining out — and the added difficulty in locating them — is where common ground lies.

More label scrutinising — that’s another.

You get the drift.

So why for some coeliacs, do any comparisons between the two groups appear to draw ire, fire and fury?

Because that’s what I witness, fairly often, when I browse through social media.

It can stem, it seems to me, from coeliacs’ frustration at finding more vegan (or vegetarian) options on a menu than gluten-free ones — food service providers being berated for failing to give the advantage to the medical dietary condition over the “lifestyle choice” that many determine veganism to be.

Lifestyle choice. That’s taking an art class or upgrading your smartphone. What a term to use for an ethical belief system that is less about merely choosing the dairy-free option, and more about living a peaceful life denouncing any kind of dominance over sentient animals.

Often I wonder whether some — just some, a very few — coeliacs would like to exert a dominance over vegans. ‘I have a greater right to be fed than you’ — that kind of thing.

A controversial gluten veggie book club sandwich … pictured earlier

‘Coeliac is not a choice!’ — that’s another one I see a lot. Of course it’s not. But some — some — vegans, for them it doesn’t feel like a choice, either, merely the only humane way to live a life. Some religious people feel the same way.

‘If we were both on a desert island, you with meat and me with grain, you could live, but I wouldn’t’ — I’ve seen that too.

There’s nothing like a real-life everyday example to win an argument, is there?


Different coeliacs; different vegans

The logical error made by too many coeliacs angry at any vegan who dares take a ‘we’re in a similar boat’ line is that they compare cherry-picked aspects of their own experience with a generic view of what they believe every vegan’s to be.

The cross-contaminated meal is a good example. Of course a cross-contaminated gluten-free dish is potentially going to have thoroughly grim consequences for you, the highly sensitive coeliac. But a/ inadvertently consuming meat could also have distressing consequences — first psychological then potentially physiological — on a caring vegan, and b/ not every coeliac is as sensitive as you, or sensitive at all, or as concerned about symptoms that (for them) may be minor.

Some vegans may find things harder than some coeliacs, is my point. If we were to take a random selection of 100 vegans and 100 coeliacs and find a way to quantify via some sort of “who’s got it tougher” rating, I imagine the coeliacs would ‘win’.

But I also imagine there would be more overlap than many might imagine.

‘Travelling gluten-free is tougher than travelling vegan’ was the latest objection I saw, about someone unidentified who had apparently disrespected this belief. Again, this would have to be judged on an individual basis, but in a general sense it would also depend where one travelled.

As an Italian, I can confidently (but not proudly) share that if you were in remote parts of Italy, and tried to find vegan food, you’d be met with blank stares, and even laughed into the neighbouring province. You might even cause offence — you’ve travelled to this untouched tourist-free corner of Italy, and you won’t even taste our local speciality cheese, made with the milk of sheep organically hand-reared by virginal Umbrian nuns? Be gone!

Ask for GF? There’ll be a plate of polenta and rabbit or risotto and mushrooms on your placemat before you’ve had time to take your Ray Bans off.


A final word …

Coeliacs. For those of you who this may apply to: please be a bit more thoughtful towards vegans. Many of you already are, but a few are very angry at them, or at people who cater for them and not you, or at those who sympathise with them.

I’ve rarely seen this anger in reverse, by the way.

And in some ways you’ve got it better than vegans: the free from aisle is in your favour, for starters. Even if it is the ‘choice’ you deem it to be, don’t you have any respect for those who make life difficult for themselves in a manner or two which you might like to wish away in your own case?

And I bet you never get called Carrot Killer either.

But seriously, coeliac advocates regularly call for greater awareness and understanding — and I wholeheartedly support that, because it’s vital in a catering industry sometimes confused and frustrated by ‘wellness’ gluten-free diners — but demonstrating a lack of both towards another, different community does not sit well with me, and doesn’t sit well with many more thoughtful coeliacs who see that the ‘free from’ community works better when it sticks together.

Telling a community to not mention theirs in the same breath as yours builds a wall, and I’m surprised by anyone who, in these terrifying political times, can possibly advocate the building of a wall.


  1. Cressida

    Excellent piece, thank you

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Hey, cheers, C.

  2. Benjamin Richardson

    Alex, I recognize the phenomenon you are describing, this . . . . ‘competition’ for who is most deserving or faces the greatest challenge. I prefer to think that common cause and collaboration is far more valuable!

    Perhaps ironically, I followed a vegan diet for 5 years and discontinued this shortly after I was diagnosed coeliac and learned I have genetic SNPs that significantly reduce my ability to process certain vitamins (including Vitamin A) from plant foods.

    Only after ceasing my vegan diet did I really start building awareness of the compelling reasons to be vegan other than dietary preference i.e. animal welfare, human welfare, sustainability. I completely agree with the idea that for at least some vegans the vegan diet, which is only one facet of veganism, is no more to them a ‘choice’ than the decision to avoid ‘gluten’ is a choice for a coeliac. It is simply the only approach that is aligned with their values and ethics and any forced or unintended compromise can do great damage to their wellbeing.

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Yes, I think when it’s *angry* it just puzzles me. And it’s internecine. We should be choosing our battles with Peter Rabbit, with allergy sceptics, with producers of overpriced GF sandwiches, with care-less bandwagon jumpers … not ‘internally’ in free from.


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