Prolifically Seeking Good Health
Good health. What is that? No really…take a moment to consider what it means for you. Is it staying un-glutened for 12 months or trying to gain some elusive weight? Maybe it’s working out how to increase your iron levels. You know yourself what it means for you. Everyone has their own unique circumstance each with its own set of challenges.
For Benjamin Richardson, achieving good health through practise, example and endeavour is what he does. Prolifically.
Benjamin is the guy behind Forever Free From. Right now, I bet I know what you are thinking. “What’s going to be so different about this gluten guy?”. Three simple words: Spirit & generosity.
Don’t believe me? Well read on and find out for yourself.
Over to you Benjamin…
The Early Years of Good Health
KMGF: Tell us a little about yourself, your family and how you are able to keep your energy levels high enough to support such a busy life.
I’m following the life advice to first get a plant, and if I can keep that alive I’m ready for a cat, then get a cat, if I can get that alive I’m ready for a partner, only then get a partner. I have plants, some are doing good. I don’t feel ready for a cat yet though.
Name a behaviour known to support health and happiness I probably practice it. Nutrition, sleep, exercise, meditation, mindfulness, hygiene, social time, sense of purpose. I never get ill. Perhaps it is all ‘working’. I’ll let you know once I reach 150 years old.
KMGF: What was your journey to diagnosis like?
Incredibly unusual and lucky. Pre-diagnosis I was happily consuming gluten with no obvious symptoms, no digestive distress. Because I was into pro-active exploration for things like nutrient insufficiencies I had managed to agree with a receptive general practice (GP) doctor to run some blood tests. On seeing the results this GP noticed some elevated liver enzymes (ALT and AST) and asked if I was coeliac. I had never heard of it.
This incredible GP then proceeded to order up the coeliac antibody tests and they came back positive. After that I underwent the diagnosis gold standard of dual biopsy. Once to confirm and assess the damage to the intestine then a second 6 months after beginning a gluten-free diet to confirm healing. I have had several biopsies since and by the 18 month mark there was no longer any evidence of damage. My villi had arisen anew.
KMGF: Do you find that your friends and family are supportive of your dietary requirements?
Hugely, yes. Friends bring gluten-free snacks round when I’m hosting socials. Family buy in food that I ask for in advance and flex meals to ensure my safety.
KMGF: What is the one food that you miss the most since switching to a gluten free diet?
Cherry Ripe Bars! Ironically, these Australian delicacies became easily available in London shortly after my diagnosis. I grew up in Oz and loved these candy bars. I would love to be able to eat one, just one a year would do!
KMGF: Forever Free From is a part of your life that takes a lot of time. What do you do in your spare time?
Lots of sporty stuff. I have my own home gym and live next to a park. I’ve recently been learning to rollerblade together with one buddy and am just beginning to relearn to swim.
Also lots of geeky stuff. I play board games with friends on evenings and weekends. I have an Oculus Rift VR headset that is delighting me.
Last and not least, foodie stuff. I prep a lot of my own food and am continuously sprouting, fermenting and dehydrating. I focus on making the kinds of foods that are not available for purchase or are horrendously expensive when they are. Examples are broccoli sprouts, sauerkraut and kale crackers.
KMGF: Do you contribute to the coeliac community in other ways as well (outside of the Forever Free From and Free From Awards activities)?
Yes, for several years now I have been the organizer of events for a London Gluten-Free Meetup club. This is an informal club with open-invite meetups, workshops, meals out and the like. It provides an opportunity to enjoy food together with other people with the same restriction or preference and just feel normal and relaxed.
I am also a direct investor in some businesses that have a great proposition for coeliacs. One is the 100% Gluten-Free Farmstand restaurant in London. Another is the ‘Etsy for Food’ platform for artisan producers called Yumbles.
In the Beginning
KMGF: What did you do before you created the Forever Free From brand and internet presence?
Well Forever Free From is very much only a hobby for me so . . . . same as what I am doing now! Most of my time is taken up with my professional job and the rest is shared between blogging, sport, socialising and other interests.
KMGF: When did you first decide that you wanted to contribute back to the gluten free community?
As soon as I attended the first ever Gluten-Free London Meetup Club meet. I saw how delighted fellow diners were to be amongst people dealing with the same challenges.
KMGF: Why did you decide to create ForeverFreeFrom?
I read voraciously about health, wellbeing, food and gluten. I was frequently being told by people I shared knowledge and insights with that I should blog about them. That was the initial prompt. I am extremely passionate about good food prepared well, meaning ethically and sustainably. I have the same energy for health and wellbeing. When I discover something delightful I want to advocate for it and share the benefit with others. Blogging gives me a channel to do so.
KMGF: How did you get it started?
I read lots of guides on how to start blogging and then dived in by doing all the stuff needed to set up a site using WordPress.org.
I would and still could benefit hugely from coaching from an experienced blogger. There is the technical website stuff, writing, pictures, social media, promotion. I’m a beginner in all disciplines!
Making it work
KMGF: How are your restaurant, café and store reviews sourced?
Simple. I regularly scan for new and interesting places to visit either around London or in a location I am visiting. If I like them and feel I can recommend them I “review” them. Some other reviews follow from my Free From Eating Out Award ‘judging’ assignments.
KMGF: Are you approached by these food outlets or is it through personal or team experience that they are identified for inclusion?
Personal experience. I’ve been contacted only a couple of times by venues. That might happen more frequently if I invested effort into and was successful in growing my ‘reach’.
KMGF: When eating out, do you find that you develop an ongoing relationship with restaurants?
Frequently yes and with independent venues especially. I will almost always offer any meaningful feedback and suggestions I have to make and seek to make these in the most positive and compelling way possible.
One example. Several years ago I dined out a couple of times at a restaurant named Mommi in London. The food was terrific but my experience very poor. I developed a dialogue with the Manager & Head Chef around improvements & presented them with the idea & potential benefits of becoming a 100% Gluten-Free venue. Mommi have since developed into one of the very best destination restaurants catering safely gluten-free in the UK and were the overall Free From Eating Out Award winner in 2017!
KMGF: What is your approach if you discover something that compromises the safety of the meal?
Stop eating. Engage my server. Report the issue to the Manager or Head Chef or both and confirm their understanding. Help to identify the cause of the issue and how it can be prevented from reoccurring.
Yes. Since diagnosis I have knowingly been glutened twice, both times eating out. Both times due to entirely avoidable communication errors of the kind that almost any venue could make.
KMGF: What did you do about it? What approach do you recommend to others?
I make sure that the venue manager understands what has occurred and I explain I am motivated to help the venue improve and avoid that the same issue affects me again or another diner. Framing myself as a partner to help them improve encourages openness and willingness to change and always results in a positive response to this approach so do recommend it to others.
Switching between standards
KMGF: You do a bit of international travel. Do you find that the different definitions of what gluten free is are sometimes confusing between countries?
Throughout Europe there is a single definition thanks to an EU regulation that defines Gluten-Free as <20 parts per million and how allergens must be declared for food sold via retail or via food service. This has been in place since 2014. Awareness & compliance still varies but the definitions are standard. Thanks EU! Curse you Brexit!
The US recently ‘caught up’ by adopting the same definition as the EU, 20 ppm.
Outside Europe, US and Australia and the Scandinavian Countries (not in Europe) is the gluten-free wilderness. Good luck out there!
KMGF: Australia’s approach to the legally acceptable levels of gluten in products is one of compliance and governance by ensuring products are what they say. That is, they comply to the <5ppm detectable gluten.
What other standards have you encountered during your travels? Do you find it hard to source information in the different countries?
I’m aware of and acknowledge criticisms but I admire the Coeliac Australia approach, or at least aspects of it. I regard the 20 ppm definition as a pragmatic compromise rather than something that ensures the safety of coeliacs. The fact that Coeliac Australia commissioned a Cochrane Review to determine whether a safe level of gluten exposure could be established, which returned a negative, speaks to this.
Even though all Countries within the EU have the same regulation the implementation and coeliac awareness and friendliness varies enormously. I would place UK, US and Australia into a top tier perhaps together with Norway, Denmark and Finland. In Tier 2 there is Italy and Spain. Beneath that there is France and Germany and Poland that I have familiarity with.
KMGF: You have been a gluten free eating out reviewer for a while now and would have been able to see some social impacts come and go with regard to the availability and safety of gluten free food in restaurants.
Are you noticing any recent changes with regards to general knowledge in food outlets or the safety of the food they provide? Do you think this is a consequence of the increase in people looking to gluten free diets for things other than medical reasons?
In the UK and London, huge change. In 2011 I was diagnosed and the first Pizza restaurant (Pizza Express) chain introduced a gluten-free menu. Now there are half a dozen Pizza restaurant chains with a strong gluten-free menu and many independents.
In London I now can reasonably expect that the staff in many cafes and restaurants know what gluten-free means and there is a good chance they know what coeliac is too. The rest of the UK is behind and the UK itself is in that ‘top tier’ I refer to but the trend is broad.
For certain though the supply is not being driven by demand from coeliacs or those with a gluten intolerance. It is driven by the much larger volume of demand from voluntary restrictors or those with a lifestyle preference to avoid gluten.
Food Outlet education and support
KMGF: Have you ever had a food outlet reach out to you for guidance?
I have had several food outlets, both indies and chains, welcome guidance once a dialogue was opened up. Several have entered the Free From Eating Out Awards due to my encouragement to do so and I think I can count on 3 that I have influenced towards going 100% Gluten-Free.
However, I always engage in dialogue with the explicit mention that I am a keen and enthusiastic amateur, not a food service professional. I am aware of my limits and do not try to present myself as something I am not.
KMGF: What knowledge do you find is lacking in many food outlets? Why do you think this is the case?
Fruit is not a pudding. Seriously. Many venues that have an otherwise solid gluten-free menu seem to give up at the Dessert stage. Fruit salad, sorbet and dairy ice cream are the usual suspects. Why? I am puzzled. Why are dessert menus so often separate from the main menu? I’m not a dessert monster but hey, I want to get an idea for the full meal I’m about to have I know if I need to skip some salad to try out a cheesecake!
Something else I find lacking is application of ‘good practices’ that really help reduce risk and increase diner confidence & comfort. Things like serving GF meals on different colour plates and using little GF flags on GF meals. For venues serving GF food alongside non-GF food this can really help reduce the risk of errors and misunderstandings and ‘delight’ the gluten-free diner. Why? I think this is explained by simple awareness, or lack of.
KMGF: When you consider Forever Free From and what it has become, what are you the most proud of?
I love blogging about foodie stuff but my biggest & best posts are about lifestyle interventions that could have hugely positive impacts on health span. One pair is about the ‘Fasting Mimicking Diet’ and another about Personalised Nutrition Blood Glucose Testing. I try to provide a guide that enables and simplifies these interventions for others and share my learning too.
KMGF: Would you have gone about things differently if you had your time over?
I have a list of things I would like to change about my blogging but no, nothing major. I only know of what I want to change due to learning ‘on the job’ and given I am a hobby blogger I feel free to make mistakes and move on 🙂
KMGF: Is there anything new on the horizon for you or Forever Free From?
In early 2018 I’ll be again on the judging team for the UK Free From Food Awards and I would love to do something for them with impact similar to that of creating a map for all the Free From Eating Out Award Winners which I created in 2017. I’d also love to enhance that map to make it more valuable to users.
I’m keenly watching and supporting the development of a potentially game-changing app for diners avoiding any of the 14 major allergens, including gluten, called Eat Safe.
I think what I need to do now that I am regularly producing new content is advance my learning and put more into networking and promotion so I can extend my reach and relevance to readers. Tips welcome 🙂
Other ideas include taking a food photography class, a writing class, and . . . ooh, I’d really love to run little workshops focused on understanding and developing appreciation of tastes and flavours. One big positive for me of becoming coeliac is that it really kickstarted my interest in fine food and that has become a major passion.
Finally, I’d love to get hold of a Nima device and take it on a tour of London, UK and wherever I travel on business and pleasure.
Our Good Fortune
I think you will agree, that Benjamin is an extremely active advocate not only for coeliacs, but also good, no, excellent health.
Kiss My Gluten Free has been fortunate enough to be able to include many of Benjamin’s dining reviews in our Maps for Coeliacs. Keep an eye out for Forever Free From tags at the bottom of the information panels when you click on our GF map markers in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe.