Experts warn that food holidays are getting cheaper and cheaper in the UK

Patients with food allergies and health problems affecting the digestive tract are increasingly unable to afford to buy products without supermarkets, leaving them with painful symptoms or permanent damage, experts warn.

Around 2.3 million people in the UK have either a food allergy or intolerance or celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that makes people unable to eat gluten.

To survive, many people have to buy free food, which costs much more than other products. According to a report published by the Food Standards Agency in 2022, adults with food allergies, intolerances or celiac disease spend up to 27% more on food than those without food sensitivities.

In some areas, patients can get help with medical diet costs. Celiac patients in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are at lower risk of long-term health complications because they can get free gluten-free bread, pasta and flour.

But the cost of living crisis has made it difficult, especially for people in England, to afford food. Around a third of England’s 42 integrated care boards no longer offer gluten-free prescription food, after NHS England said commissioners were no longer obliged to do so.

The latest figures from Celiac UK show that gluten-free staples are now typically 2.5 times more expensive than gluten-free products. A typical gluten-free bread is 4.4 times more expensive, while the cheapest gluten-free breads are six times more expensive than their gluten-free counterparts.

Similarly, the cheapest oat milk typically costs between 1.30 and 1.40 litres, which is more than double the typical price of cow’s milk.

Dr Kate Evans, consultant gastroenterologist at the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, says she has seen a number of celiac patients over the past year who are not sticking to their gluten-free diet because it is too expensive.

Patients are sent back because of persistent symptoms such as abdominal pain, weight loss and diarrhea, he said. Evans said tests showed this was because they were not following a gluten-free diet.

Then it turns out that they eat normal bread because they can’t afford gluten-free. They say they eat gluten because there are no alternatives.

This can have serious long-term health consequences. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease for which the only treatment is a lifelong strict gluten-free diet. Celiacs who eat gluten are more likely to develop osteoporosis and osteopenia, which increases their risk of fractures and also leads to inflammation and ulcers of the small intestine, which can cause cancer.

Professor David Sanders, consultant gastroenterologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, says patients don’t always understand the risks, especially those without significant symptoms. They don’t think about what things will happen in the long run. They just think about survival now.

Dr Gerry Robbins, consultant gastroenterologist at York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, says the impact of affordable gluten-free food has yet to be fully felt in the NHS. I believe there will be a larger group of these patients in the next two to five years.

President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Dr Camilla Kingdon, says that access for children with celiac disease, food intolerance or allergies is important for their development.

Yet pediatricians are already seeing children and their families eating or being left without the necessary free options. Without these foods, children can have gastrointestinal problems, often feel unwell, and may even be at greater risk of developing mental health problems.

It is simply not right that children from lower income families should be put at such a disadvantage in terms of their health and well-being. If we ever really want to get children’s health under control, we must first address child poverty and food insecurity.

Amena Warner, director of clinical services at Allergy UK, says children with a cow’s milk allergy whose families cannot afford alternatives such as oat or soya products can develop other health problems.

Because these products tend to be at least as nutritionally compatible as the food they replace, removing them from a child’s diet can have long-term health effects on a child’s development, such as an increased risk of eczema, vitamin and mineral deficiencies. , said Warner.

Sanders said the fact that gluten-free food was no longer available by prescription to many reflects a certain inertia and nihilism in the medical community. Gluten-free food is the only treatment for celiac disease. If it were type 1 diabetes, another autoimmune disease, we wouldn’t ask patients to buy their own insulin.

Tristan Humphreys, Director of Advocacy at Celiac UK, said: It cannot be right that so many people living with celiac disease in England are being denied access to this kind of lifestyle. Not because of need or means, but simply because of geographic damage.

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