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.

  3. diana m

    Hey Alex, interesting points and sadly all true.

    There is anger and frustration at all sides though. Coeliacs are also angry towards those who choose to avoid gluten because they don’t feel well when eating it. Many people get bloated etc. and feel better without. There are many other health conditions that are managed with a gluten free diet by the way including the symptoms of autism, MS, IBS and a range of auto-immune and neurological disorders. So one may not be coeliac but may have a condition that can be better managed eating gluten free. This of course means that they can have cross contaminated food and even a cracker or bread when eating out but the more they have the worse they are going to feel. That is when you see someone ordering gluten free pasta and then nibbling on bread while waiting. These people are not villains – honestly the coeliac community needs to get a grip and learn as much about other health conditions as they expect others to learn about theirs. (I’m coeliac by the way – but I would not eat gluten even if I wasn’t. I also eat almost not other grains).

    There is also a massive paleo community and there is much scientific evidence points towards that eating the “modern” forms wheat and other grains in large quantities is not good for anyone’s health. Coeliacs need to respect people’s choice.

    I think the massive difference is of course choice and the length of time one pursues with their eating choice. I’m yet to meet a vegan who’s done it for life. According to stats the majority of vegans are gen Z and the tail end of millennials so mostly people in their 20’s and early 30’s. Once you have a few kids who need wooly jumpers, painting easter eggs, and fed formula milk (no, babies can’t survive on vegan milk as far as I know) priorities change very few can sustain it. Not to mention that a healthy vegan diet needs a lot of planning and proper nutrition to keep it up for a long time.

    Here is what I think: we meant to be living in a democracy. So let’s all have the right to choose what we put in our bodies and what we refuse to put in our bodies and when – whatever the reason – we are not accountable anyone. The only difference will be our NHS bill – but as experts can’t agree on what’s healthy it’s hard to call.

    We also need to accept that most people will change their minds about what they eat during their life. If you want to live on raw juices it’s fine; if you want to eat steak it’s fine; if you want to eat sugar it’s fine; if you want to eat gluten on Monday and not on Tuesday it’s fine too the same way as 5:2 diet is fine; you can even be a “flexitarian”. It’s our bodies and our choice. Thankfully there is enough choice for everyone.

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      Lots of interesting points. I don’t agree with all – for instance, I’m not convinced about the concern about ‘modern’ wheat (although eating too much of any food isn’t going to be necessarily good for health) – but I do very strongly agree we all have the right to refuse to put into our bodies anything we don’t want to, for any reason, and if in a food service situation that is requested, and agreed upon, then the request should be honoured.

      I think the cross-contamination point is interesting because so long as the dialogue is honest and consistent, then it’s of course reasonable. But when a non-coeliac orders a GF meal and specifies it must be free of cross-contamination etc – and then later orders profiteroles for dessert, then this is the sort of behaviour that is unfair and rightly upsets coeliacs. I would hope most working in the food industry would understand that sensitivities can vary – but maybe not.

      1. Diana m

        Yes, that is a tricky one. You don’t want to put food service under unnecessary pressure. At most places when I order (not all) they do ask if I’m coeliac or not when ordering GF food. So perhaps that’s the way forward. As long as staff is trained and everything is in place to serve coeliacs safely there is no reason to go to all that trouble if they are not coeliac? Perhaps.

        I have coeliac that runs in the family. My 5 yo is not coeliac (hopefully won’t be as he is not being fed gluten) but highly sensitive and turns into a total brat when someone feeds him gluten. He can’t tolerate non-gluten free porridge oats but perfectly fine with restaurant contaminated chips.
        So yes, there are huge differences between people and clear communication is key. That’s true for veganism as well though, some eat honey and even eggs on occasion. I also know vegans that eat “normal” when on holiday. 🙂

        1. Alex G (Post author)

          I think there’s a new category now – ‘plant based’ – which eat almost exclusively vegan, but now and then supplement with non-vegan. I think perhaps that’s possibly a more accurate term for those who dip into eggs on their holiday! 🙂

  4. mom2girls

    Many of you dont realize is that just because someone is CELIAC doesnt mean they only have to avoid gluten products – Celiac disease is an Auto Immune illness – most people who are celiac are also allergic to fish, eggs, dairy, soy, nuts, corn, and a slew of other products therefore please do not lump all of us into one category – because as a vegan – you will not become ill or hospitalized should you choose to eat otherwise – but as a Celiac with an auto immune disease and other issues (DH etc.) any amount of cross contamination at all would easily land you in ER. I would gladly be vegan over Celiac any day 🙂

    1. Alex G (Post author)

      I and many others who regularly comment on these subjects know full well that coeliac disease is auto-immune.
      Some coeliacs also have food allergies, but it is not true that ‘most’ do.
      Regarding your other points, I’ve not lumped anyone into any category, and have not disputed that x-contamination hurts coeliacs but not vegans.
      I’ve said that it shouldn’t be a competition, that there are some similarities, and that if the various ‘free from’ communities were to support one another and work together, it would benefit all.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


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