Dating with celiac disease doesn’t read like a romantic novel

May 25, 2021

New survey reveals celiac disease makes dating difficult

By Amy Ratner, Director of Scientific Affairs

Baily Arman, 22, a recent graduate who was diagnosed with celiac disease halfway through college had been dating a guy for a while and things seemed to be going well. “Conversation flowed, and I found him attractive,” Arman says. But then things took a turn.

“After a few dates I explained that I had celiac disease, but that I didn’t want him to think of me as the sick girl. We had a great night and then went our separate ways,” Arman explains. “The next time we talked he said he didn’t want to see me anymore. Maybe it was for some other reason, but it’s hard not to think that he thought I’d be too much trouble.”

Celiac disease has definitely made dating more difficult, notes Arman.

So, it is no surprise to her that the story of dating with celiac disease told by a new survey hardly reads like a romantic novel.

Dating dilemmas

Nearly half of people 18 years and older who have experienced dating while having celiac disease hesitate to go on dates, the survey found.

One in five said the overall dating experience is not enjoyable. Nearly 40 percent are uncomfortable on a date when they have to explain their need for gluten-free food to restaurant servers. Nearly 30 percent take risks when eating and eight percent have eaten gluten knowingly.

These statistics reveal that the burden of celiac disease weighs heavily on those out in the dating world. Young adults, those 23- to 35-years-old, were more likely to report that celiac disease had a moderate to major impact on their lives compared to those older than 65 years.

The survey was sent out by researchers at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University who shared the tale of dating woe at the recent Digestive Disease Week, the largest international gathering of gastroenterologists and other specialists. DDW was a virtual event this year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The data illustrated the significant impact of celiac disease and the gluten-free diet especially on interpersonal relationships and dating, according to study authors Jessica Lebovits, RD, a clinical dietitian and Anne Lee, EdD, instructor in nutritional medicine, both at the celiac center. They also noted an overall effect on quality of life.

The survey, conducted in 2020, included questions about dating attitudes, behaviors and preferences specific to celiac disease. About 640  people filled out the survey at least partially. Of those, 285 were actively dating or had previously dated. Study analysis of a number of questions focused on this group. Overall, most of those who filled out the survey were women.

Hesitating to kiss

Among about 600 survey participants who answered these specific questions, about 40 percent are hesitant to kiss, about 23 percent feel symptoms interfere with being physically intimate and 12 percent feel their partner needs to be on a gluten-free diet.

All respondents filled out a social anxiety questionnaire, a quality-of-life questionnaire and answered questions about food attitudes and behavior specific to celiac disease.

Those who said that celiac disease was significantly impacting their dating life were more likely to: have a household income of less than $50,000; be hesitant to go on dates; and have a lower quality of life score.

The joy of dating was especially diminished for those who said they bring their own food to a restaurant or reported being uncomfortable explaining the details of the gluten-free diet in front of a date. Those who took risks with their food also were more likely to say that overall dating was not fun.

Women were more hesitant than men to kiss because of celiac disease and the worry that they might pick up gluten cross-contact from kissing.  Worry about kissing caused increased social anxiety.

Researchers concluded that the risk of transferring gluten while kissing needs to be explored.

Celiac disease in online dating profiles

For those who said they have or had an online dating profile, 85 percent didn’t mention celiac disease. On a first date, those with celiac disease prefer to go for drink or, for example, to the movies compared to going out for a meal. About 77 percent prefer suggesting the setting of a date, while 71 percent would rather select the setting of a date.

One limitation of the study was that it was done during the pandemic, which might have caused a reduction in dating. Also, survey respondents might not represent the general celiac dating population because they all were recruited by the Columbia celiac center and the majority had a college or graduate school education, an annual household income of $100,000 or more and lived in the suburbs.

“The findings highlight the struggles and concerns faced by those with celiac disease and reinforces the importance of multifaceted counseling on the gluten-free diet by a celiac disease specialist dietitian,” said Lebovits, who presented the survey results at DDW.

What the future holds

Arman, who lives in Minnesota and is digital content coordinator at Beyond Celiac, can relate to much of what the survey reveals. She does not include her dietary restrictions in her dating bio since she assumes it will drive people away because they think she is a fad dieter or is being difficult. On dates she does her best to avoid restaurants and bars and suggests instead a walk in the park or a movie. Only after a few dates does she feel safe enough to bring up celiac disease and the gluten-free diet and the outcome is not always positive.

“If at the end of the night somebody goes in for the kiss my instinct is to turn my face so they get cheek instead, which feels terrible, and then I have to explain why they can’t kiss me,” she says.  “When I complain to my friends or family about how hard and stressful dating can be, they say I should find somebody with dietary restrictions or date someone with celiac disease. Yeah, like that’s easy to find.”

Since her diagnosis three years ago and before starting her job at Beyond Celiac, she had only met one other person with celiac disease.

Arman’s dating worries also translate into how she sees her future.

“I want to be in a committed relationship and ideally get married someday, but having celiac disease makes me think that might not happen for me,” she explains. “It makes me sad that I can’t date freely like my friends, and fall in and out of relationships, unless I want to sacrifice my health. I’m trying to stay optimistic and talk to new people, but I’m also trying to come to terms with the idea that I might be single forever. If that happens, I’ll have to get a lot of dogs.”

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