After way too many stories of celebrities embracing gluten-free as the end-all, be-all healthy diet, we finally have a public figure stepping up for celiac awareness.
I think I speak for many of us when I say…IT’S ABOUT TIME!
Let’s have a big, warm, Dude welcome to Shannon Ford.
Shannon was crowned Mrs. United States on the evening of August 4th, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 2009, she was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Shannon is proud to promote her platform, 1 in 133: Raising Awareness for Celiac Disease. It is her goal to bring more attention to the illness and advocate for better labeling of our nations food supply.
She was gracious enough to accommodate my interview request and I can’t thank her enough for her time and her energy.
Ok…onto the interview.
GD: Hi Shannon. I’m a curious person, or so I’ve been told, so to start off, I actually have a few non-celiac questions.
You have a BA in psychology. You are a successful business woman. You serve as a Miami Dolphins Ambassador. In other words, you seriously have your stuff together. How does somebody with this background become Mrs. USA? What exactly is process to even get into the contest and what is the contest itself like behind the scenes?
The Mrs. United States pageant looks for a representative for all married women. Yes, I did have pageant experience in my single life ten years prior, but that can often be a negative. The key in any pageant is to be yourself and share your story and that is what I did. My reason for entering the Mrs. Florida pageant was to get the message out about Celiac Disease, what it is and how to get tested. I would say about 80% of the women who were there had a cause, like mine, that they were passionate about. The title of Mrs. United States is a tremendous vehicle to share your story and that is the motivation for many to compete.
GD: I’m always amazed at how well the runner-ups react to not winning. If you were announced as first runner-up instead of the winner, did you have a fake happy reaction well-rehearsed?
I will be honest, I have only been a 1st runner-up once in my entire pageant career and it was one of the toughest positions to be in. On one hand, you are awarded one of the highest honors at the pageant showing that you did exceptionally well. Then on the other, you know that you “almost” won and you cannot help to second guess yourself on what you could have done better. However, in that particular pageant, I was truly happy for the winner as she is an exceptional lady who truly deserved to win. My reaction was not in the least fake, but I will admit that there were some tears backstage. But with everything, you pick yourself up, learn a few things and move on.
GD: Ok…curiosity satisfied…onto the celiac questions.
What is your celiac history? By that I mean what kind of symptoms did you have? How long were you sick for? How difficult was it to get an accurate diagnosis?
I always remember not feeling well when I ate breads, pastas etc. so I didn’t eat them often; however my symptoms really started at the end of 2008 and progressively got worse. My resting heartrate was 35bpm, I was extremely fatigued, even falling asleep at my desk at work. My stomach would swell when eating certain foods leading many to believe I was pregnant. And let’s not even discuss the gas, I could clear a room. I now know that gas is NOT a normal thing and is your body’s way of telling you it is intolerant to something. However, in our society, we eat so many processed unhealthy foods, we think gas is just a normal part of life.
[Dude note: Something about Mrs. United States talking about gas makes me smile. You take away the outer level, and deep down, we’re all pretty much the same.]
I also had weight gain, which is why many of my doctors dismissed Celiac Disease as a cause when I asked them about it. It wasn’t until I begged my endocrinologist to test me for the antibodies, which she did and it came back positive. I actually removed gluten immediately after taking the blood test because in my gut, I just knew. I was advised to get further, more invasive, testing done, but after 10 months of agony, I was done. I have been ridiculed by some in the Celiac community because of this as they question my diagnosis. However, I knew I felt better by removing gluten from my diet and that was enough for me.
GD: Many people are extremely happy to get a diagnosis because it means the beginning of feeling better. Personally, I was devastated. What was your initial reaction?
I was relieved. As I stated earlier, breads, pastas and other gluten products were not a mainstay of my diet, so those were easy to remove. Where I found it most difficult to adjust were the hidden sources of gluten in sauces and seasonings. I also learned about cross contamination the hard way…several times.
However, I can relate to that devastated feeling. Earlier this year I found out I am allergic to eggs and, for me, that was devastating. I love eggs and ate them everyday, so that was a huge change for me. However, I’ve been able to adjust and don’t miss them much anymore. With everything, there is a new normal.
[Dude note: I use this term all the time…the new normal.]
GD: You must be on the road a lot. Travelling with celiac disease can be a huge hassle. How do you handle it?
I am always prepared. I’ll usually pick a hotel with a refrigerator in the room and will either pack a small grill for long trips or stop by a local Whole Foods and stock up on some prepared foods for shorter ones. I will also research restaurants in the local area or contact the restaurant directly if a dinner is already planned. For example, this weekend, I will be in Raleigh Durham for their Gluten Free Expo. There is a special gluten free dinner on Saturday Night hosted by Delight Gluten Free Magazine that I will be attending, however, the menu consists of gluten free lasgana. Since I am grain & dairy free and allergic to tomatoes, this obviously is not going to work for me, so I simply contacted the owner and they are making accommodations for me. Some restaurants are more accommodating than others and if you can’t accommodate, you lose my business.
GD: Your platform for winning the Mrs. USA contest is to promote Celiac Awareness. First, I’d just like to say a big thanks. Secondly, what is your plan of attack to promote awareness and what has people’s response been so far?
I have been traveling the country attending different gluten free expos and sharing my story. The response at these expos is always very powerful, as I am reminded by parents in every city that I am a role model for their Celiac or Gluten Intolerant children. I am also going to be a columnist for Delight Gluten Free magazine starting this Fall (send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org) and I have started a blog called “Contemporary Cavegirl” where I will chronicle my own journey and share tips, products & ideas for others living gluten or grain free.
GD: If you’ve read my blog, you know I rail against celebrities jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon as a weight-loss tool. I believe this kind of publicity makes it more difficult for those who NEED to be gluten-free to be taken seriously. What are your thoughts on this?
Personally I believe most people can benefit from a gluten free diet and I do think it can be helpful for weight loss, so I do not mind it at all. However, like everything eating gluten free cookies and cakes is not going to help you lose weight or be a healthier person overall and I think that is where many in our country are misinformed.
GD: What’s your favorite meal?
Anything with bacon!
GD: I asked my Facebook/Twitter crew if they had any questions for you. They came up with some great ones.
Do you find that with your celebrity status, people are now more willing to accommodate your gluten-free needs?
Well, the thing about beauty queens is, unless you are wearing your banner, no one usually knows who you are, so the answer is no. But I have learned to be very assertive whenever I go to a restaurant. If the waiter does not know what gluten is, I ask to speak to the chef.
Would you consider using your celebrity platform to encourage restaurants offering gluten-free menus to also implement mandatory training for managers, kitchen staff, and wait staff on the dangers of cross-contamination as well as how to prevent it?
Absolutely. I think this will be a future fight for the 1 in 133 group or others like it. But first we need the FDA to come out with their Gluten Free Requirements.
Are your cosmetics gluten-free and if so, does that affect your sponsorship opportunities?
This was one of the last things I changed when going gluten free. I never broke out, so didn’t think it made a difference, but when I did make the switch, I saw an improvement in my overall health. We often forget that our skin is the largest organ in our body and anything we put on it is absorbed. It does not affect my sponsorship opportunities, but whenever I am having my make-up done for an event, I usually bring my own make-up and brushes.
What is your favorite beauty product?
My favorite product has to be Nerium AD Night Cream. It is not only Gluten Free, but Paraben Free as well. I am currently 36 years old, and if I don’t look it, it is because of Nerium AD. In fact, I love the product so much I decided to become a Brand Partner. The stuff is magic in a bottle!
Thanks again Shannon for your time and I think I speak on behalf of all celiacs when I say thank you tons for your efforts in raising celiac awareness.