Life StoryApril/May 2008 Issue

A New Game Plan for Eating Gluten and Dairy Free

First Down Star quarterback Rich Gannon’s record-breaking career with the Oakland Raiders ended abruptly in 2004 when his neck was injured from a hard hit on the playing field. An NFL Most Valuable Player who took the Raider’s to the Super Bowl in 2003, he’s now retired from football and working as an NFL television analyst for CBS.

Eating Gluten and Dairy Free

Rich isn’t the only person in the Gannon family whose medical issues have brought major lifestyle changes. Over the years, after many months of ill health, wife Shelley discovered that she and their two daughters, Alexis, 13, and Danielle, 10, have food sensitivities. Today, the family eats gluten and dairy free.

Field Position It started in 1997 when Danielle was a new baby. She was losing weight and seriously sick with diarrhea and vomiting, bloated and crying constantly.

“Looking back, it was a horrible blur – a sick, screaming baby and a nightmare of tests,” says Shelley. Doctors finally diagnosed celiac disease. As Shelley successfully tackled the nuances of the gluten-free diet, the baby began to thrive – but not Shelley.

“I was terribly fatigued and my hair was falling out,” she says. At first she blamed it on the stress of having a sick baby. But as time went by, she noticed more. “We always ate noodles and sauce on Fridays and I felt like I had the flu at the end of every week.” Blood tests were negative for celiac but showed she carried the DQ2 and DQ8 markers, genes responsible for the disease.

A while later, daughter Alexis had difficulty shaking a strep throat despite multiple rounds of antibiotics. After that she remained tired and weak. Ever alert to celiac symptoms (“Alexis had totally horrible constipation”), Shelley had the girl tested. Results were negative but showed that Alexis, too, carried the celiac marker.

Good Call The doctor suggested that the little girl temporarily stop consuming gluten, just to see if it helped. Shelley and Danielle were already eating gluten free so Alexis joined them. The change was immediate. ‘She was suddenly a different girl, bubbly and energetic.” Shelley kept Alexis off gluten for many weeks until that Thanksgiving when the youngster happily wolfed down her first gluten-containing meal.

“Within an hour, she was throwing up,” Shelley says.

The family has been gluten free ever since. Shelley eventually limited dairy from the family diet after she noticed the girls reacting to milk products.

“Surprisingly, going dairy free helped me, too,” she says. “I always had a runny nose and lots of sinus issues. All that cleared up when I stopped drinking milk.”

Having three in the family with similar food sensitivities is helpful, Shelley says. “We sometimes ask each other, do you have a stomachache, too? What did we eat? It helps to know we can check with each other and figure it out, especially with hidden ingredients.”

Go Team Soon after Danielle was diagnosed, Shelley joined with two other moms to start a celiac group in Minneapolis, Minnesota, now called Raising Our Celiac Kids.

 In addition to supporting celiac families throughout the Twin Cities area, ROCK sponsors Making Tracks for Celiacs, an annual walk that recently raised over $70,000 for the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research.

“The walk has been a phenomenal fundraiser. Plus, it’s a really fun event and a great food fair. Kids can eat anything they see,” Shelley says. Rich serves as honorary chair.

Winning Game It’s been ten years since Danielle’s illness ushered the Gannons into the world of food sensitivities. Today, the family is healthy and thriving.
Looking back, Shelley distinctly remembers the first time she went grocery shopping after Danielle’s diagnosis. “I was standing in the middle of the aisle in tears,” she says. She wonders at the progress. “We’ve made huge strides as a community. Tons of great-tasting products, a food-allergy labeling law and important research ongoing at the University of Maryland.”
Her goal is to help more people get diagnosed – and more quickly.

“It’s so frustrating to be so sick and to be told by the medical community that you’re fine.” Shelley says. “So we’re working to raise awareness, to get people healthy. And we’re on our way to find a cure. It’s all really good.”

From the Vault! Living Without first interviewed Rich Gannon in the winter 2001 issue. You can read that article in its entirety at

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