HOPE VALLEY — Saying “No thanks” to pizza, doughnuts and birthday cake might seem incomprehensible for most youngsters, but for 13-year-old Annaliesa Wood, it’s a common practice. This sparkly-eyed St. Pius X School honor student and star gymnast prefers to do without the gluten-laden treats. Eliminating gluten from her diet has made all the difference, said Wood, who wrote a prize-winning essay recently that earned her a trip to Camp Celiac in North Scituate.
“I am an athlete and I don’t let my celiac disease get in the way of my goals,” Wood wrote in her essay. “My experiences with eating healthier make me stronger and more powerful. I have been competing in gymnastics for over 5 years and I know without my confidence and determination I would never have been able to succeed in gymnastics.”
Wood is one of at least 3 million Americans who suffer from celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. It is triggered by consumption of the protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye.
Like most people with celiac disease, ingesting the smallest amount of gluten — something that only happens accidentally these days — makes the young Hope Valley teen very sick with intense vomiting, hives and other unpleasantries.
When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the finger-like villi of the small intestine. When the villi become damaged, the body is unable to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, which can lead to malnourishment. Left untreated, people with celiac disease can develop further complications such as other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and cancer.
But Wood, who uses much of her energy for gymnastics classes and competitions, has developed a sense of humor about her condition and has learned to be a sharp detective when it comes to searching for gluten in products.
One of her favorite gluten stories involves her grandfather, who accidentally used her specially-designated gluten-free-only toaster when making toast for her two younger sisters.
“He tried to clean it with a toothbrush,” said Wood with a laugh.
Life wasn’t as humorous eight years ago when Chris and Melissa Wood anguished over the health of their oldest daughter.
“We were worried about Annaliesa’s growth for about a year while we saw our pediatrician and specialists at Hasbro Children’s Hospital,” said Annalieasa’s mom, Melissa Wood, a change management professional with CVS.
Her dad, Chris Wood, a lead inspector and renewable energy consultant, said: “She’d eat and eat and eat and she never had enough. Meanwhile, she had a distended tummy and was skinny and not growing and she constantly chewed on ice.”
“I remember going to a birthday party when I was 4 and everyone asked me why my tummy was so big,” said Annaliesa.
According to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, children tend to have the more classic signs of celiac disease, including growth problems — or failure to thrive.
Following the advice of Annaliesa’s preschool teacher, who had celiac disease, the Woods had their daughter tested.
When the test came back positive, along with the follow-up biopsy, the Woods changed how they ate and immediately eliminated gluten from Annaliesa’s diet.
Within six months, Annaliesa grew 5 inches, began sleeping better and became much more outgoing and interactive with her two baby sisters, her mother said.
About a year later, Annaliesa’s 3-year-old cousin was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and celiac disease.
“Our whole extended family began learning more about diet, eating gluten free and supporting each other to help the kids,” said Melissa. “Our whole family gets involved with cooking and making gluten-free food from scratch. We even started raising chickens so we could have our own fresh eggs for our baking.”
Now the Woods are experts. They know of every gluten-friendly restaurant in New England and from New York to the Bahamas. The younger girls, Julianne, 10, and Laura, 8, have even learned to like gluten-free bread.
“They actually prefer it,” said Annaliesa. “And we all like gluten-free macaroni and cheese.”
“Friends and family have been so wonderful to watch out for ‘GF’ foods for Annaliesa and keep on their shelves when she comes to visit,” said Melissa. “We are excited that the Wood River Inn, Town Pizza II, 99 Restaurant, Dan’s and Vetrano’s have great ‘GF’ options so we can go to local restaurants, too.”
The essay contest that Anneliesa entered was sponsored by Colorado-based Rudi’s Gluten-Free Bakery. When Melissa saw the contest advertised in a magazine, she encouraged her daughter to participate.
Wood’s essay was one of 10 chosen from hundreds of essays submitted to the contest. Winners received scholarships to Camp Celiac, which started in July 2000 as a weekend sleep-away camp for children with celiac disease. The camp has grown into a five-day sleep-away camp catering to the needs of kids on a gluten-free diet, and they come to Rhode Island from all over the U.S., Israel, Sweden, Germany and Italy.
Rudi’s offered the scholarship program this year for the second time.
“At Rudi’s Gluten-Free, we’re all about living life to the fullest while giving back to the community of fans we’ve grown to cherish,” said Doug Radi, senior vice president of marketing and sales for Rudi’s Organic Bakery. “Kids — and their parents at home — shouldn’t have to worry about what they eat at summer camp. Instead, they should be able to focus on exploring and developing an adventurous spirit.”
Rudi’s also offers scholarships to Camp Weekaneatit in Georgia, Gluten-Free Fun Camp in Minnesota, and a third in Canada.
Visit rudisglutenfree.com to learn how else Rudi’s supports the gluten-free community and to find more about Camp Celiac and about the scholarship program.
Wood has made adjustments to her gluten-free lifestyle remarkably well, said her dad, and they’ve been able to find decent substitutes for nearly everything, including the gluten-free s’mores Annaliesa is looking forward to when she goes to camp later this month. But there is one childhood treat she’ll always wish she could eat.
“I miss those animal crackers,” she said. “The ones that come in the little red box.”