For years, Bast suffered from numerous, painful symptoms. She experienced hair loss, tooth decay, extreme fatigue, chronic migraines, canker sores, diarrhea, bloating, gastrointestinal pain, and tingling sensations in her fingers and toes. After one stillborn child and three midterm miscarriages, the 5-foot 9-inch Bast weighed just 105 pounds and kept getting sicker. Her second daughter was born seven weeks premature and weighed two pounds. In the decade since her symptoms had begun, Bast visited 22 doctors, none of whom correctly diagnosed her.
Finally, a veterinarian suspected that Bast’s symptoms were food-related. A simple blood test confirmed the diagnosis of celiac disease. An estimated 3 million Americans of all races, ages, and genders suffer from celiac disease and a staggering 95% of celiacs (people with celiac disease) are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. A pharmaceutical cure for the disease has not been found and the only treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet.
In 2003, Bast founded the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) with a dual mission: to increase awareness of celiac disease in order to make early diagnosis standard, and to raise funds to support medical research and education. While the NFCA is not the only organization to support celiacs, Bast’s initiatives are the first to actively work to diagnose them. Since the establishment of the NFCA, the rate of diagnosis has dropped significantly from eleven to six years.
Bast and the NFCA then challenged the food industry not only to produce more gluten-free food, but also to make it less expensive and more widely available. In 2006, she consulted with Anheuser-Bush in launching their first gluten-free beer and worked with Whole Foods, Wegmans and Walmart to develop their gluten-free lines. The NFCA also introduced a program which trains chefs and restaurants to prepare gluten-free food. Bast declared Philadelphia to be the first Gluten-Free Neighborhood in America, because of her organization’s success in educating the area’s doctors and food industry; all major Philadelphia sports teams offer gluten-free concessions at every game.
Bast was chosen as the recipient of the 2010 Award for her “tireless passion for health and education [that] has shined light upon a disease that went undiagnosed for decades.” The award recognized “her drive to bring relief and treatment to those dealing with celiac disease in Philadelphia and throughout the world—no matter their financial background.”