Statistics by All India Institute of Medical Sciences show that approximately six to eight million people are diagnosed with Celiac Disease per year in India. Yet, there are few who are informed about this invisible ailment. While its awareness is increasing by the day, its treatments and lifestyle rectifications are still not featured in our daily conversation. 

Jeeva Anna George is a baker, blogger, author, speaker, and a social media manager who has dedicated the last decade to inform people about her story and how she has successfully overcome this hurdle in our society. In conversation with Suhani Lakhotia, Jeeva talks about her journey, her book, and how she has helped the community by facing her challenges head-on.

Even though ailments like Celiac disease and lactose intolerance have been part of our lives for a while, it is only now that people have started talking about. What made you initiate a conversation about the same? Please take me through your journey.
Jeeva Anna GeorgeI was diagnosed in 2010. During my symptom stage, I went from doctor to doctor but no one could explain it. The symptoms of Celiac Disease are very common. It takes multiple tests to diagnose it. Sometimes doctors are able to and sometimes they brush it off saying that it is food poisoning. In the diagnosis process, I lost out on a lot of things. I quit my job, it affected my mental health and visibly, my physical health too. This took a toll on me. 

I didn’t want others to suffer like me. So, I started talking about it. I thought that maybe my journey could give others clarity about their condition. It’s also my personality. I am a very frank person who states her opinions as they are, no sugar coating. I started writing about how I could not travel in society or eat outside. I did not have to talk about these but I did in the hope of helping someone to diagnose themselves. Of course, I am not a doctor and I do advise them to visit one. But this preliminary sharing can direct them in the right direction. 

Once you recognised your diagnosis about Celiac disease, what steps did you follow to make others aware of it?
While attending social gatherings, I made sure to inform the host about my situation beforehand. Another thing was talking. For instance, in 2010 I had found a gluten-free product at a local supermarket in Bangalore. I asked the shopkeeper if they could get more of those. I had a chat with several store managers explaining to them the reason why people consume gluten-free goods. Additionally, I have talked to head chefs of several hotels and wrote to food companies as well. Some people would listen, most of them wouldn’t. Whoever was willing, I would speak with them.

When it came to family, I had to sit them down and explain it to them. They understood some of it, not everything. Now, with time, they know. With friends, as well, it was conversation whenever I met them. I also started posting on my Facebook page. People abroad are still aware of this but very few knew about Celiac Disease in India. Since then, we have become a sort of community. We are not in the same place, location-wise, but technology helps us being connected.

What drove you to write a book sharing your story? Can you share your creative process?
A Gluten Free LifeIn 2014, I had a 10-minute slot at a conference called The Goa Project. Sathya Sharan, the former editor of Femina, was also one of the keynote speakers at the event. After my talk, she asked for my contact information. Two months later, she asked me if I was interested in writing a book. I was surprised and said yes but I also conveyed that I am not a writer. Sathya asked me to write the synopsis first. Consequently, she sent it to Harper Collins. They approved of the book. 

Writing a book was not easy. I only had experience in baking so this was a new challenge. But I was very disciplined about it. Over the one and a half years that it took for me to write, I had to revisit some very personal incidents of my life, something I never wanted to do again. Nevertheless, I wanted people to know about the hardships of this invisible disease. It took me this long as I wanted to figure out what the book meant. It was always going to be something that people could relate to.

The narrative of A Gluten Free Life: My Celiac Story is conversational. Was that a conscious decision? What made you do so?
It was a combined decision of me, my co-author, Sheila Kumar, and the publisher. The book, essentially, revolves around a subject that a lot of people are unaware of. We would have conversations about how to make the book engaging as medical books tend to be a little dry. And it had to be something that the public can identify with. Also, I am not an influencer or a celebrity so my name itself would not sell the book. At the end of the day, people needed to realise that it is a fun read about a serious health issue. Only then they would buy the book.

Apart from a book, you also have a website, glutenfreeliv.in that has several gluten-free recipes. How and why did you decide to initiate a channel for curating and creating recipes?
On initial diagnosis, I didn’t know much about food or cooking. Due to unavailability, I had no choice but to learn. Once I started experimenting, I felt like sharing my experience. Facebook was not user friendly because of the endless scrolling. I wanted to have a specific medium dedicated to my recipes where people could view what I had written. That is how my blog – Jeeva Musings came about. It was a crucial decision, and I am glad that I took it. Now I have my own website, where I write all my recipes. At times, I also share about travelling and how people can cope while doing so. Both the website and blog show everything that I have learnt.

Because of Indian cuisine, a gluten-free diet is especially difficult to follow. What were the challenges you faced? How did you share your experience of overcoming this issue with your followers?

Gluten Free

Gluten Free Meal by Jeeva

I come from the southern region of India where rice is a staple. Rice, along with dosas and idlis, are gluten-free, so it was relatively easier for me. Usually, people with a wheat-based diet have more issues. However, being born and raised in Kuwait meant having to let go of all the delicious bread in the Gulf diet. So, I found different methods to face these issues. I also found that about 90% of the Indian spice brands compound their products with wheat solids.

We made a community where we send products to labs to figure out which products are safe to use. I shared all my learnings on Facebook, which was the only medium available at that time. People visiting India would also ask me for suggestions so I made a list of eateries and ingredients to use. I have also helped a couple bake a gluten-free cake for their wedding! Parents and business owners have written to me seeking information and I have always helped them best to my capacity.

You are an active blogger, a manager of a social media page – JagGlutenFree, an author, and a speaker. I noticed that each medium is dedicated to a particular focal point. For instance, the website/blog, shares gluten-free recipes, while your speeches make people aware of your experiences and challenges. How do you keep each of your digital assets unique in its standing?
The process is quite simple. I put myself in the reader’s shoes and try to view the posts as a third person. Each platform has a set of pros and cons. You can’t do on an article, what you do on Instagram on Facebook and you can’t write the way you write on any of the social media platforms when you are writing a blog. You need to understand what people are looking for and tweak the posts accordingly. Facebook is for dialogue, Instagram is for the younger generation and Twitter is for quick bites. I share personal experiences through the blogs on my website. It keeps the conversation going.

It is also crucial to keep the content different on every medium. Why would my Facebook followers follow me on Instagram if I post the same thing? I keep the age group in mind to convey my message to a larger audience. For instance, someone on Facebook will read a data-heavy post, but that won’t work on Instagram. I make sure to give a twist to my content by using smart words on each of my social media handles.

A big part of creating, curating and posting recipes on the internet is to engage with the public. How have you maintained loyal followership? What are some of the feedbacks that have helped you be a part of the community?
I share a personal relationship with many of my followers. There are a few friends that I have made over the years, there are some who follow me because my content is different and there are some who message me asking suggestions. I believe whichever medium or wherever you are, trust and content are very important. My followers know that I only share recipes that are safe. Everything that I put on the internet is something that I have eaten or baked for someone else.

In terms of feedback, I haven’t received a negative one yet. People do tell me what works and ask for suggestions when they don’t receive the desired result. Having said that, I share a very give and take relationship with my followers. If I help them, they also give me inputs and answer my queries.

Adapting to a new lifestyle impacts one, both, physically and mentally. What are the changes you have witnessed in the discussions around this topic over the years? How have you adapted to the changing thoughts?
In the beginning, I only talked about commercially available gluten-free products because I didn’t know any better. Now, with research and help, I have included ragi, jowar, bajra in my baking. I follow a strict routine, plan my meals, exercise and limit office hours. I follow a balanced diet with proteins and greens and monitor my meals in a food diary.

Just like me, a lot of people have adapted to these changes as well. They are moving away from sugar and dairy and maintaining journals to track their meals. Similarly, we Celiacs have devised new ways to incorporate ingredients in our diets. Due to the pandemic, the younger generation is finally appreciating home-cooked meals. They have started using their kitchen and are letting go of diets like keto and paleo. This, in itself, is a big shift and a healthier shift from before.

How has sharing your story helped you in your own journey? Did you resonate with others who share a similar story? Did you connect with people, along the way?

Maggi Kitchen

On ZeeTV with Renuka Sahane

Numerous people responded by saying that they were going through the same thing when I started sharing my story. We were all in this community because we could relate to each other. Once, a student asked me how to navigate around a hostel with this diet as there was no special food in communal living. So, I am often posed with novel challenges. They help me understand the situations that I have never been in. In turn, both parties got different perspectives. I am not a parent yet but researching for other parents has helped me prepare for the future.

It is a very rewarding journey. I never thought that narrating my story would connect me with people around the globe. All of us have developed a relationship of helping and guiding each other. It is a very positive and healthy environment, a safe space for us.

Can you elaborate on your short term and long term goals? What’s in the future?
For now, I am developing recipes which are foolproof and which cater to people with the top 5 allergens. I also want to conduct classes and teach people how to bake and cook gluten-free dishes. In the future, I hope to create products that can be sold in retail and have a longer shelf life. Further on, I am working on getting a few certifications. I have the Healthy Baking Book Series scheduled with OMBC and a talk in December. I hope to create more awareness through my talks in 2021. But, the future is unpredictable so I am taking it one day at a time.

(This interview is part of OMBC and StoneMill’s India’s First Curated, Crowd-sourced Healthy Baking Book Series’. Jeeva Anna George is part of the curation panel. To get healthy and gluten-free tips from Jeeva, talk to her @jagglutenfree.)

Our Takeaways from The Interview

Audience Engagement

The Healthy Baking Book Series

StoneMill India has partnered with the Ovenderful Mom Bakers Community (OMBC), a Facebook-recognised online community of 35,000+ bakers from across the globe with a passion for healthy baking to create a collection of specially curated recipe books that are based on OMBC’s main philosophy of healthy baking. This series is the first of its kind from India. For more details, visit stonemill.in/ombchealthybakingbooks