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Just before the start of his junior year at Wrightstown High School, Lakeland College freshman Kurt Jansen, a 6-foot-5 forward on the men's basketball team, was diagnosed with celiac disease and saw his pregame meal go from a dense carbohydrate dish to a Jimmy John's unwich.
Celiac disease is a lifelong inherited autoimmune condition affecting children and adults. When people with the disease eat foods that contain gluten, a kind of protein that tends to exist in wheat, barley and rye among other carbohydrates, it creates an immune-mediated toxic reaction that causes damage to the small intestine and does not allow food to be properly absorbed. Even small amounts of gluten in foods can affect those with celiac and cause health problems.
Jansen, along with his sister, Andrea, and mother, Rie-ann, inherited the disease from his grandfather, Peter. It wasn't until Peter was diagnosed that Jansen knew he also carried the autoimmune disease.
"My grandfather was getting tests done and that's when they also discovered that I had the disease, too," said Jansen. "I had no idea what it was or how it was going to affect me, so it was frightening when I first found out. My mom got tested shortly after, and from that day forward our diets changed forever."
There is no cure for celiac disease other than eating gluten-free foods. Even the slightest contamination with gluten can hurt a celiac and cause a list of health problems. Foods containing wheat, barley or rye are forbidden.
It has turned Jansen into a master food label reader, and he knows exactly what he can enjoy. The De Pere, Wis., native makes three stops in his hometown to fulfill his snack-time urge. He'll order a hard shell bean taco at Taco Bell, then proceed into Burger King and order fries, and, for dessert, he tops it off with a McDonald's ice cream cone.
"I can't eat at very many fast-food restaurants," said Jansen. "I have to be careful with how the food is prepared, because even a trace of gluten isn't good. I can't order fries at most restaurants because the same fryer is used for breaded items. Burger King is the only place that uses a different fryer for its fries."
While awareness of celiac disease is gaining attention throughout the country, the availability of gluten-free foods is limited, making it hard for an athlete like Jansen to gain weight. "I lost weight in the beginning months of my diagnosis because there wasn't much I could eat," said Jansen. "I wanted to gain weight, but I had a hard time finding foods that were suitable for me."
Products that are made gluten-free aren't cheap. For example, the average gluten-free bread costs $5 and is about half the size of regular-sized bread. "My mom buys gluten-free flour and spaghetti in bulk online because it's normally cheaper and actually tastes better than what's available in grocery stores," said Jansen.
One of the reasons Jansen chose Lakeland over other schools that were recruiting him was Lakeland head coach Aaron Aanonsen's understanding and care for Jansen's unique situation. "We felt confident we could accommodate his needs," said Aanonsen. "We had him meet with our cafeteria staff to make sure we understood the situation and could deliver for him. We've used it to our advantage to have our whole team eating healthier and being mindful of nutritional needs better."
When the team stops for pre- or post-game meals, Aanonsen choses gluten-friendly places such as the team favorite Jimmy John's.
"Coach is really good about it," said Jansen. "He made me feel that I would be taken care of at Lakeland. This year we've gone to better restaurants for me because those are the only ones where I can eat."
Jansen's go-to item at Jimmy John's is the unwich, which takes the normal ingredients of a sub sandwich and wraps them in lettuce instead of bread. While he orders only one unwich, you won't find Jansen without his signature gluten-free snack, two corn tortillas, spread with whipped cream cheese and stuffed with his deli meat of choice.
"I have those as my sandwiches and I bring a couple with me to every game," said Jansen. "They are handy and give me the energy I need on the basketball court."
Jansen also enjoys his mother's gluten-free cookies and has found a new appreciation for gluten-free pizza. The Bar, a restaurant and bar located in Northeastern Wisconsin, is a Jansen family favorite because of its extensive gluten-free menu, including chicken wings and hamburgers.
Rie-ann, who is a registered nurse in the G.I. clinic at St. Mary's and St. Vincent hospitals in Green Bay, is heavily involved with celiac disease and its cause. She has traveled around the country to raise awareness about celiac disease and attends meetings throughout Wisconsin.
A relatively new drug called larazotide acetate, a pill intended to help celiacs eat gluten foods, is said to have passed stage two of FDA testing, but Jansen isn't interested in taking it. He's comfortable with his new normal.
"Now I think other food is gross," said Jansen. "When I was first diagnosed I was depressed I couldn't have much, but now it's my life and I like it."
On the basketball court, Jansen has a bright future at Lakeland and Aanonsen likes the extra time he puts in outside of practice. "Kurt is one of our hardest workers," said Aanonsen. "He comes in multiple days of week outside of practice to get in extra work with myself and our assistants. He's got a bright future ahead of him. This year he hasn't seen the rewards as much because of our upperclassmen, but I think next year he'll have a break out year for us."