5 Tips for the Gluten-Free Adventurer
Embracing adventure while maintaining a gluten-free diet; Tips from a celiac world traveler and outdoor enthusiast.
Let’s face it. You’ve heard a lot about gluten lately. That may be partly due to trend, but it can also be attributed to the increase in prevalence and diagnosis of celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by the ingestion of gluten. For those of us with celiac disease, gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some other grains) literally causes our bodies to destroy our small intestine, resulting in a myriad of complications ranging from headaches and rashes to lymphoma and death. It need not be said, then, that those with this disease have to be quite careful with what we eat. But this shouldn't stop us from being adventurers and traveling the world! With a few tips and a little planning, you can still follow your wanderlust dreams and partake in epic outdoor adventures!
1. Know Your Stuff
Don’t expect others to know what you mean when you talk about gluten. In order to be safe, you need to know how to read labels and understand the different forms that gluten can come in. When you read a menu you should be able to pick out which items are most likely to be gluten-free and where the hidden sources of gluten are. That way if your only option is a questionable restaurant, then you can have the chef or server list the ingredients and you can make the decision yourself.
2. Be Prepared
Do your research ahead of time and know if there are any local restaurants that may be safe for you. Know if there will be grocery stores along the way or if your only option will be fast food. You may be surprised how much information you can find ahead of time if you simply search online using your destination followed by gluten-free. I’ve read travel blogs and yelp reviews. I’ve called places ahead of time and added notes to my restaurant reservations. Do everything you can before hand to set yourself up for success along the way. The last thing you want is to be stuck in the middle of nowhere and starving with nothing safe to eat! Know that slightly fancier restaurants tend to be more knowledgable and accommodating, and many companies will accommodate you with gluten-free options if you let them know ahead of time. I was able to get freshly baked gluten-free bread all the way in Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile because I notified the trekking company. It never hurts to ask, but it will always hurt to go hungry.
3. Bring Backup
Always travel with snacks and extra food. ALWAYS! That way you don’t have to make any questionable food decisions and risk getting sick in the middle of a grand adventure, or getting “hangry,” which is always what happens to me. You never know when a grocery store or restaurant will be out of options for you. For example, in Patagonia there were lots of restaurants that had gluten-free menus, but NONE of them actually had the products in stock. NONE. If you’re like me, eating every few hours is essential. I always bring my favorite gluten-free bars, oatmeal packets, a loaf of bread, and a small jar of peanut butter if I can. I almost always pack these things away in my luggage so that I can be sure to have something for breakfast when the “free breakfast” is only pastries and bagels, or when I just can’t seem to find enough food. Sometimes I’ll even bring my own meals to parties or events when I’m not sure if there will be anything for me to eat. Another strategy is to eat a meal ahead of time, that way you don’t have to worry about the options later.
4. Take Charge
If you’re going with a group, offer to plan the food for the trip. Most people would gladly turn over the reigns, and then you can be sure that the restaurants and food for the trip are completely safe. Most likely your friends/travel companions won’t even notice that it’s all gluten-free. When I travel with friends or go backpacking, I’m always in charge of the food and that’s mostly because no one wants the responsibility and everyone loves the food that I bring. There are some great gluten-free backpacking options these days (try the freeze dried meals from Good To-Go and I promise you will never go back)! Taking charge also applies to ordering meals in restaurants and eating at other people’s houses. Don’t be afraid to speak up. You won’t insult anyone and you’re not being difficult. You have to eat this way, and your friends will be understanding if you simply explain. If you’re eating in a restaurant, you’re paying to be there, so don’t be afraid of asking too many questions. If your server doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable regarding gluten, then ask to speak directly with the chef. Don’t be shy, this is your health!
5. Change Your Mind
Don’t let eating gluten-free stop you from living the life you want to live! When I first found out that I had celiac disease I stayed home all the time and made all of my own meals. I was afraid to go to restaurants or other peoples’ houses to eat. I felt depressed and isolated, and it took me a while to let go of the control and embrace the adventure again. I was always a wanderer at heart and loved spontaneous trips, but this diagnosis put a stall on my adventurous spirit. Once I changed my mindset from that of fear of getting sick to embracing and owning the experience, I was able to fully live my life again. You can do the same. Trust me, it’s worth it!
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