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Traveling as a Gluten-Free Diner

Traveling as a Gluten Free Diner

By Kelle Rankin-Sunter

Art13_GlutenFree_BGIGEditor's Message: Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and related grain species like barley and rye. It can trigger an immune reaction in people with celiac disease. It causes damages to the inner surface of their small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients. Symptom may include abdominal pain, diarrhea/constipation, and weight fluctuation. It can be long-term health issues resulting from the lack of nutrients. It is estimated that 1 in 133 Americans, about 3 million, across all races, ages and gender are affected by the disease. And 6 times more than that may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. (source: CeliacCentral.org) The treatment is to avoid gluten food. But as so much of our food is made with gluten-loaded ingredients, avoiding gluten can be a dietary challenge, especially if you eat out a lot. Here are some great tips for gluten-free travel.

If you have recently been diagnosed it is a good certainty that you are feeling overwhelmed by the requirements of following the gluten free diet. Even with the plethora of gluten-free choices that have come on the market in the past six years, it will seem either very confusing or very expensive to duplicate your "gluten-full" diet of old. The idea of going to a restaurant or traveling probably sends you to the wall wailing! But do not despair! Not only can you dine out in relative safety, you can travel by land, sea and air! When I was first diagnosed 10 years ago, I never went anywhere without my emergency bag of nuts/seeds, dried fruit, gf food bars and bottled water. While I still travel with it, I find that many times I can find places to eat where I have reasonable confidence that I won't be sick. It is also a good idea to try and keep your diet as close to what you are used to in your "every day" life. This will reduce the chances that you will have a reaction to a new food (or try something that has gluten in it because you aren't familiar with the ingredients) or put stress on your digestion that is already being stressed by long hours, trip management and strange sleeping (different bed, noise, etc.)

Planning is Important for Those Traveling with Dietary Restrictions

Art13_GlutenFree_PlannerPlanning is the most important part of any trip and it is never more true when one is traveling with a dietary restriction. With the advent of the internet you can preview the airport, the neighborhood where your hotel will be, the cruise ship, etc. This allows you to limit the possibility of being in a place where you are hungry and are willing to risk your health because you feel as though you have no options.

So begin your travel planning by considering the following questions:

How difficult will it be for you to carry some food with you? Just in case you get "stuck" with "no" food options. When we are hungry we are poor decision-makers and are more likely to say "oh, I just can't bother" and break our diet restriction(s).

Will you be traveling with friends who have similar restrictions? It is always easier when you are a "group" at a table full of folks with similar dietary needs. Not only can you help each other interface with staff, but the restaurant will see you as a bigger consumer block (and income).

Will you be in a fixed activity such as a group tour, resort or cruise ship? ALWAYS contact them directly to find out what their policy is on meeting special diets. Many facilities prefer that travelers "pre-register" so that they can order in what their guest will need in terms of special food.

Will you have access to the internet to do research "on the road" or should you do your research before you leave, creating lists of markets you will be able to shop at, restaurant options and other information.

If you are staying in a hotel, do they have a kitchenette or room refrigerator/microwave where you can prepare at least some of your meals, if preferred or if necessary?

Is "Gluten-Free" Really Gluten-Free?

NEVER read a sign or a menu that says "Gluten Free" and ASSUME that they understand what that means! For example, while many restaurants might buy gluten-free noodles and advertise them as such - they might not understand that they shouldn't cook them in the same water as wheat noodles! Always ask questions and remember that YOU are the one who will suffer if they serve you gluten, not them.

When ordering in a restaurant, how familiar are you with ingredients for recipes? Have you downloaded "safe food and unsafe" food lists? and reviewed them for familiarity. This is a great way to understand where hidden sources of gluten might be found (or any other allergen). By knowing what might normally be found in a dish, you can assess a menu in any restaurant and fairly well determine whether or not the dish could be naturally gluten-free. ALWAYS  advise wait staff of your dietary needs when you are ordering and ask for the chef's recommendation to determine whether or not the item actually is safe.

Of course, traveling with a dietary card that can be carried to the kitchen and given to the chef is a great idea. Rather than requiring your server (who is naturally busy) to have to take the extra time necessary to accurately relay your dietary restrictions.

Many mainstream restaurants are now offering gluten-free menus. They are making great strides to set up safe ingredients and reduce the possibility of cross contamination. It may be difficult for you to ask your server to have the chef clean off the grill before cooking your food, or wrapping it in foil - you can forego that by ordering something that probably won't get cross-contaminated. HOWEVER, it is still advisable to inspect your food carefully (I have found croutons in the bottom on my "gluten-free" salad, ordered from the gluten free menu!) before eating it. IF you find any evidence of questionable ingredients, ask your server to bring you another, leaving the plate of unacceptable food on the table (so that they can't go to the back and just remove the bun from the burger). It is still always safer to order items that are naturally gluten free (clean meats, vegetables, rice, corn, potatoes, green salads, fruit, etc.) rather than experiment with an unknown chef, in an unknown restaurant.

If the menu only contains deep-fried items and the server thinks that the "flour" you are asking about is the "flower" on the table - better find another restaurant.

More information about Bellingham Gluten Information Group can be found at: http://www.glutenfreeway.info/

Kelle Rankin-Sunter, Bellingham Gluten Information Group Support Team Leader

Photo credit: By JacQuLyne