Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dining and Travel Tips for Celiacs

One of my first concerns when I was diagnosed, (aside from wondering if my gut was ever going to heal) was whether I would be able to travel again.

Fifteen months, one European and multiple domestic trips later, the answer is “yes, but restrictions apply.” I've eaten safely and well in Phoenix and been “gluten-ed” in Albuquerque, had great GF meals in Italy and been sent into gastro-hell in San Francisco.

Here's my short list of axioms for celiac diners and travelers:

  • Recognize that when someone else prepares your food, whether in their home or in a restaurant, your risk of gluten contamination increases. If the risk is worth it to you, or if you literally have no other choice, then proceed (and read on for additional ways to protect yourself).
  • Your absolute best bet for a safe dining experience is to buy and prepare your own food, all the time. This is relatively easy to do at home (even if you don't like the idea), but requires culinary flexibility and a kitchen when on the road.
  • For both options, advance research and planning are the best tools you can use to increase your dining safety.
  • Carry Glutenease and use it anytime there is risk of gluten contamination. I have no financial involvement with this product but my integrative MD recommended it (over-the-counter availability) as a way to reduce the effects of gluten in your gut. Does it work? I don't know for sure, but I use it as a relatively inexpensive insurance policy against the dreaded immediate effects of gluten in my body. (BTW, taking Glutenease in no way mitigates the long-term effects of eating gluten if you have celiac disease, and should not be taken with the false expectation that consuming gluten is ever OK for celiacs.)

When beginning my life as a diagnosed celiac, I found some websites that listed gluten-friendly restaurants. The first problem with such well-meaning lists is that the recommendations are not always current. With Yelp, UrbanSpoon and other sites, you can often pull up the menus of places that claim to have GF items, but note that even these restaurants don't guarantee 100% purity.

Well-meaning chefs with uninformed wait staff do not a safe combination make! A GF salad is worthless if the waiter tops it with croutons, catches his error, and scrapes it delicately off the plate before serving it to you, who unwittingly scarfs it down, only to soon start itching or leaping for the nearest bathroom.

If you are planning a domestic trip and want to eat out, its a good idea to do an internet search for GF restaurants and also to locate a celiac-support group in the town you are visiting, as those folks are likely to have the most up-to-date information.

Unfortunately, celiacs must still dine out at our own risk, and believe me, I understand why sometimes you must, due to lack of other options or the incredible craving to simply NOT HAVE TO COOK.

The biggest challenge continues to be what to eat while en route to my destination, made worse when traveling on long international itineraries. A very few airlines, all international, are gluten-savvy; call ahead and find out if a GF menu is available for your flight. The flight attendants of Southwest are always generous with extra bags of peanuts when I explain my situation, but one cannot live on peanuts alone.

While on the ground, I have yet to find safe dining options in airports that provide me with sufficient balanced calories for a day's journey, and forget about rushing to catch an early morning flight and grabbing a croissant or breakfast sandwich at a fast food airport cafe. Recently at DFW I had a bowl of supposedly GF guacamole for lunch---no chips (they had wheat flour, as well as corn), just a spoon to eat it with...and, sadly, was sick soon after. The food was not spoiled but likely had a flour tortilla graze it before it got to me.

Best advice----pack your own food, enough for the hours, including possible delays (like the five-hour weather delay I had on a recent domestic flight), to get to your final destination. With no ability to take ice, regular or blue, with you, an insulated lunch bag and maybe some frozen food item that you are willing to throw away at the end of the day may be good enough to keep what you intend to eat fresh and tasty. Hummus, GF crackers, cheeses, carrots/celery crudites, fruit, peanut butter, nuts, a pb-and-j on GF bread, even a dressed green salad allows me to arrive fed and in a good mood.

International travel may be even more challenging. I had great success in Italy, where there are many more diagnosed celiacs, but disaster in British Columbia. Travelers' forums on Rick Steve's, Fodor's, Frommers and Lonely Planet are good places to search and post your requests for recommendations.

Staying in Bed & Breakfasts or hotels with free breakfasts usually leave me with zero safe breakfast options, but I have had one very accommodating “B and B” host purchase special GF items for me and let me make my own meals in his kitchen, so it is worth making a phone call to discuss your needs before completely ruling out a particular lodging.

Having the diagnosis of celiac disease has actually improved my diet by forcing me to cook more and to choose whole foods rather than anything processed or "fast food-like". Sure, it is possible to eat GF junk, and there are way too many GF blogs offering recipes for GF cupcakes, pies, and chips. Scan the shelves at your local health food market and you'll see lots of GF junk-food, which is made from high-starch, high-glycemic flours, and which shouldn't be a regular part of anyone's diet, with or without celiac disease.

Having celiac gives us the chance to upgrade our diets by eating more healthily if we choose more carefully. Eating meals out, whether fast food or in a fine dining establishment, has always been, and continues to be, a way to consume too many calories, and for celiacs, to "get gluten-ed", so instead, why not stand up and cook (the subject of my next post)?

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