Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Thursday, 9 July 2009 10:16 UK

Hotel Babylon star on coeliac disease

By Helen Briggs
Health reporter, BBC News


"At first I thought - why me?"

At a central London cafe, actor Michael Obiora is contemplating the lunchtime delicacies set out behind the counter.

Like all people with coeliac disease, he has to cut out everything containing gluten - a protein found in wheat, rye and barley - or risk symptoms such as stomach pain and tiredness.

That means suppressing the desire for such wicked delights as blueberry muffins, cupcakes, and pizza.

"The most annoying thing is the cravings," says Michael, 22, who was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition two years ago.

"The other day I had the biggest craving - for pizza. And it kept me up at night. And I said to myself, right the next day I am going to find pizza, whether I have to buy a gluten-free base and put on my own toppings, I need a pizza. So I satisfied that craving - maybe it went a little bit too far!"

Michael Obiora
With 'Chelsea' in EastEnders

The actor is perhaps best known for playing Ben Trueman in the TV drama, Hotel Babylon. But it's his recent stint in soap land that's attracting attention today.

"Hey aren't you that guy from EastEnders?" says the man behind the counter, when he walks in.

A customer turns round and asks: "Yes, and what are you going to do about Chelsea?"

Michael just laughs and tells her to keep watching.

"Of all the things I've done, honestly, immediately, you do EastEnders and people watch it - people call you the character," he says.

"I play a character called Ellis; he's a bad-boy football player - a sports-car driving, jewellery-wearing rich football player.

I love telling stories and creating different existences

"He has a bit of an interesting encounter with Chelsea - not the football team but the character Chelsea in EastEnders."

Michael discovered his acting talent at the age of six.

"It all started off with me doing a little dance in a village concert in Nigeria where my family are from, and it was a dare from my uncle," he says.

"I ran on stage, and word spread around the village, and my mum promised that she was going to put me into drama lessons when she came back to England. And she did, when I was seven."

Coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease caused by an intolerance to gluten - a protein found in wheat, rye and barley
It affects around one in 100 people in the UK
The inflammatory condition damages the finger-like projections (villi) that line the small intestine and help in digestion
There is no cure; the only treatment is to cut out gluten altogether - including breads, pasta, flours, cereals, cakes and biscuits

By the age of nine he had landed his first professional role, in Grange Hill. Parts in other shows followed - including Holby City, Doctors, and Sea of Souls - as well as stage plays like Elmina's Kitchen.

"I love working, I love telling stories and creating different existences," he explains. "I'm just so glad I've been able to continue to do so."

He says with his finger in so many different pies, he has to keep himself fit and active, by practising yoga, and running 10 to 15 miles a week.

That also means strict attention to diet, as he finds if he eats anything with gluten in, his energy levels drop. He says the diagnosis has made a big difference, despite the inconvenience of having to be disciplined about his diet.

"I love eating my food, so eating was always when I was at my happiest, but suddenly five minutes afterwards I would start feeling sluggish and bloated and tired, and I just thought something's wrong here.

"So (after) being diagnosed I had to change a lot of things and it's been a bit of an adjustment having to cut certain foods out."

Michael Obiora is running the London 10k on July 12 for the charity Coeliac UK.

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