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How To Deal With Gluten Intolerance While On The Road

gluten intoleranceAs I often write about on Travel ‘n’ Wellness, what you eat significantly affects your overall well-being.

For travelers without any food allergies, sticking to a healthy diet while on the road is a great idea. The numerous benefits include increased energy, clarity of mind, and an overall happy spirit.

But, for people with something as serious as Celiac disease, sticking to a strict, healthy diet is an absolute MUST! If a strict diet isn’t followed, a Celiac, or anyone incredibly sensitive to gluten, will lose his or her ability to function at even a sub-standard level.

Therefore, I’ve created this mini-guide. Its primary focus is to assist travelers in dealing with and overcoming gluten-intolerance while away from home.

It ain’t easy, but it can be done.

I’ve broken this article into three sections: 1. What Gluten Intolerance Is 2. The Challenges Confronted By Celiacs On The Road and 3. Practical Steps You Can Take to Avoid Gluten and Stay Committed to Your Health

First off…

What Gluten Intolerance Is

Let’s get some definitions out of the way. For those who are new to this whole “gluten-free” concept, gluten is a plant protein found in wheat, rye and barley, that, when consumed, causes significant digestive issues for many people. As a result, many consumers have completely cut gluten from their diet, spawning an increase in overall awareness about the harms and dangers of consuming gluten.

Although people with Celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder causing terrible reactions to gluten) only make up 1% of the population, gluten intolerance (Non-Celiac wheat sensitivity) is much more common than people think (up to 30% in some estimations). So, even if you’ve never been diagnosed as a Celiac, you may still be intolerant to gluten.

Why is this important for travelers who care about health?

Cutting out gluten may be your saving grace in significantly increasing energy, and enhancing your overall disposition.

In fact, if you’ve experienced any of the following on a consistent basis, and without any clear and concise explanation, you may be intolerant to gluten:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal Pain
  • Foggy Brain
  • Depression
  • Fatigue

Now, let’s address the…

Challenges Confronted By Celiacs On The Road

While away from home, it’s much more difficult to consume meals without gluten due to every culture’s reliance on wheat and wheat by-products (excluding SE Asia).

Keep in mind, gluten isn’t just in obvious things like bread and beer – oh no! It’s found in ANY product containing wheat, including soy sauce, salad dressing, pickles, gravy and french fries.

Gluten hidden in food products is bad enough. But, when gluten cross-contamination (an unholy occurrence of contact between gluten-containing foods and non gluten containing foods) occurs, it wreaks serious havoc with a Celiac’s digestive system. All it takes is a teeny tiny bit of gluten to trigger earth-shattering symptoms that last for days.

And guess where gluten cross-contamination occurs most often?

In restaurants.

And guess where most travelers eat while on the road?

Yep! In restaurants!

How do we solve this problem?

Let’s get to the meat of this article:

Practical Steps You Can Take to Avoid Gluten

While talking with many health-conscious travelers, gluten avoidance was first on their list of priorities while away from home. After all, if celiacs or anyone seriously sensitive to wheat are exposed to gluten, their trip is ruined for days on end.

If it’s business travel, this might mean losing a ton of potential income.

If traveling for pleasure, a negative reaction to gluten is likely to severely limit time spent exploring, socializing and enjoying life.

Don’t let gluten pull you down, though! By planning ahead, and taking a few extra precautions, travelers can ensure every trip, whether for business or pleasure, goes incredibly smooth.

Do your best to rise up to the challenge, and consider these six steps during your next foray away from home!

1. Reframe Your Diet:

If you’re knowledgeable about celiac disease, you’ve likely taken a number of steps to reframe your diet.

BUT, if you’re “only” intolerant to gluten, it’s time to GET SERIOUS about what’s going into your body.

Include the following: meats, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, fish (basically any Real Food)

DON’T eat the following: Anything containing wheat, barley or rye. This includes most breads and pastas, any type of pastry, cookie, or cake, any many processed foods.

By doing this, you will instantly see a number of issues dissipate, including things like diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain, eczema, random headaches, foggy brain, fatigue and joint pain.

2. Plan Ahead:

The most critical step is to plan extensively before traveling.

WHAT Should You Plan?

  • Food to bring on the road – for more on that, check out my definitive guide on Backpacking Nutrition
  • Where you plan on staying while traveling (more on that, later): Hotels, Hostels, BnB’s, etc.
  • What, if any restaurants, are gluten-free (might not be necessary). Here is a GREAT resource to get you started.
  • Locals to connect with: In large cities, there are Celiac Support Groups. The members of these groups are excellent resources for anything related to Celiac disease and gluten intolerance in the city you’re visiting.
  • Check out additional resources such as the Gluten Free Registry and Find Me Gluten Free, which both assist travelers in finding gluten-free options on the road.

As for the WHY, there are two primary reasons you need to plan ahead:

  • Planning ahead eases the initial adjustment into a new location. If you plan ahead while traveling for business, an enormous load of stress is taken off your shoulders. Instead of worrying about possible gluten contamination, you can focus on what’s really important (like the seminar or business meeting you must attend).
  • By reducing stress, planning ahead provides the clarity of mind to figure out the best possible solution for your personal wellness while on the road. For example, if on the second day you still haven’t found a suitable restaurant to eat at, planning ahead will ensure you don’t throw all caution to the wind and settle for a less-than-ideal meal.

3. Stay Somewhere With A Full Kitchen

If you have the capability to choose the specific place you stay in, be sure to stay somewhere with a full-sized kitchen.

In order to find such a place, I recommend checking out AirBnB or VRBO.

Both of these websites match up travelers with homes throughout the world. For example, if you’re traveling to San Diego on business and need somewhere to stay, you can look up an apartment on AirBnb, contact the owner, and stay at his or her flat for a specific period of time.

Why is this so great? Nearly all homes come with a full kitchen AND it’s often cheaper than a hotel room.

If, however, you are traveling for business and do NOT have a choice, communicate with your superior to see if it’s possible to choose your own place of accomodation.

For those traveling internationally, check out Couchsurfing for accommodation OR stay in a hostel with a full kitchen. Many hostels, especially in Europe, offer a full kitchen to their residents. All you need to do is shoot the prospective hostel a quick message to inquire about your situation and see if it’s possible to use its kitchen.

4. Is It Impossible to Secure A Kitchen? 

If it’s impossible to secure a kitchen while traveling, contact the Hotel Manager and notify him or her of your gluten intolerance/celiac disease.

As awareness concerning gluten intolerance increases, many places of hospitality are willing to accomodate the specific needs of their customers.

Shoot the hotel manager a quick e-mail before arriving, asking to discuss information pertinent to your stay. Since almost all hotels have some sort of kitchen, it shouldn’t be a problem to prepare a few of your own meals.

5. My Secret and Highly Unorthodox Suggestion

This idea may sound a bit, ahem, out there, but it assuredly works for situations of dire necessity.

You likely have never heard of this idea anywhere else, making it even more exclusive to Travel ‘n’ Wellness.

I’ve personally used it while traveling, and it works like an absolute charm when I need a quick, easy, nutritious meal.

What should you do?

Pack a non-metal Tea Kettle.

What?! Ridiculous, right?

Yes, it’s absolutely ridiculous.

But, it’s also INCREDIBLY useful.

Guess what kinds of food can be made with a tea kettle? Eggs, sausages, stews, boiled potatoes – basically ANY food that can be prepared by boiling in water, can be made with a tea kettle.

Think of it like this: If you don’t have a kitchen, and there are zero gluten-free restaurants in the area, you DON’T want to starve, and you certainly don’t want to eat any gluten.

What you really want is a hot, prepared meal.

Now, by bringing along a tea kettle, you CAN have a hot meal!

Sure, it’s not the most convenient, but it could save you a ton of hassle in dealing with managers and chefs while eating out at restaurants.

The perfect size for any type of traveler is the 1 L tea kettle. It can easily fit in any luggage. (If BPA is a concern, check out these kettles)

I highly recommend this resource for any backpackers intolerant to gluten, as international awareness of gluten-free travel in places like SE Asia, South America and Central Asia is significantly less than in the developed world.

6. Absolute Last Resort

If you can’t plan ahead, and can’t stay in an AirBnB, and there’s no way the hotel you’re staying at has a kitchen, AND you don’t have enough room to pack a simple tea kettle, THEN, and only then is it time to resort to your last option: eating out at a restaurant.

Follow these steps to eliminate any possibility of gluten in your meal:

  • First things first, be sure to choose a restaurant with a gluten-free menu. Although this may not eliminate all possibilities of cross-contamination, it’s sure to reduce the risk.
  • Second, talk directly to the chef or manager – While speaking to a server, details can often be confused and garbled. Instead, speak directly to the chef or manager to ensure that no details are left uncovered.
  • Stress cross-contamination issues with your chef and server. Most problems for celiacs, when dining out, is the issue of cross-contamination. Workers in busy restaurants need to share cooking surfaces, utensils, and pans, causing many different meals to be cooked in the same place.
  • To stay safe, make sure you ask the kitchen staff to do the following: Wash their hands and change their gloves before preparing your food; mix any salad in a clean bowl; avoid using a grill surface shared with gluten-containing items; use fresh water to steam vegetables.

If you follow through on some or all of these suggestions, your next traveling experience will be much less stressful and much more healthy.

Readers: What are your thoughts about these suggestions? What are your personal experiences with gluten intolerance and traveling? Please share your comments below!



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  • Reeva

    Eat Paleo, I mean protein and vegetables and fruit. I managed a trip to Spain beautifully, mainly staying in apartments with our own kitchen and buying food but when eating in restaurants sticking to protein and vegetables. Steak & salads, tapas without bread etc Snacks were nuts and fruit. Staples were peanut butter and rice cakes. (Pre-paleo) Waiters were incredibly helpful informing me what I could and couldn’t eat. No desserts because I am dairy intolerant as well.

    • http://travelnwellness.com/ Paul

      Sounds like you had a very positive experience, Reeva! Spain is a place I’ve been dying to go to. Hopefully I’ll make it there soon!

  • Ryan

    Japan is as dependent on wheat as any other country. As you mentioned, almost all types of soy sauce are made from wheat, and most of the rice noodles also contain a significant amount of wheat. These are staple foods in Japan and I found it to be a very wheat-allergy unfriendly country.

    If you have been to Japan and eaten in restaurants without difficulty I’d love to know how. I found that although there are wheat-free foods that can be ordered, the bulk of the menu options must be avoided just as much as a western restaurant.

    Thailand, however, is brilliant. :)

    • http://travelnwellness.com/ Paul

      Ah, I wasn’t aware concerning Japan’s dependence on wheat. Thanks for the heads up, Ryan.

  • Daniel

    Could you give some more information on tip #5, the electric water kettle?? I have a situation coming up this summer for about 6 weeks I have already been stressing about and wanting to get a plan for.

    I will be living on the road without access to a real kitchen. It sounds like a cool idea, but have you actually used it? Do you just put whatever you want inside the kettle and click the boil button every 5 minutes or something? I’m thinking like thawed chicken breast, sausages, and probably broccoli or some other vegetables. I am definitely going to try this at some point no matter what, but I guess I’m fishing for any other tips you might have that you didn’t already share in the article. Thanks!!

    • http://travelnwellness.com/ Paul

      Hi Daniel,

      I have used the tea kettle trick – at least a few times.

      The key is to keep a close eye on whatever you’re cooking. Usually I get the water up to a boiling point, drop whatever I’m cooking in, and then closely monitor it until it’s cooked to the degree I’d like.

      Eggs take around 2-3 minutes, sausages about the same. Potatoes will take a bit longer.

      I plan on releasing a book within the next month that will include recipes, boiling times, and tips and tricks with using a tea kettle on the road.

  • Jo

    When I’m traveling by car, I’ve found I can easily travel for 3-4 days just on food I prepare in advance. Think pork chops cubed for ease of eating, brusselmsproits cooked with bacon, steak (great eaten straight out of a Baggie), or your favorite leftovers that taste good cold. A kitchen is always my preference, but if you’re super-sensitive like me remember you’ll need to bring our own cutting board snd probably a pan and wash all the dishes and silverware and scrub all the surfaces when you arrive. And good luck keeping the cleaning people from touching your kitchen.

    Other great travel foods are packets of runs or other fish (less weight than cans!) and hard boiled eggs and cheese (I love Baby Bels and string cheese) and chocolate like you mentioned. I also bring along nut bars which can be eaten out of the wrapper without using your hands. (Yes I’m that sensitive.)

    If you live in the USA and have Celiac or food allergies, you are covered by the ADA you can get a note from your doctor which will allow you to bring whatever food you need through security and onto flights. I’ve taken large smoothies through before – just make sure your doctor includes nutrient-rich liquids in the note if you want to avoid difficulties with the TSA. The attendants on our flight will keep you supplied wi ice for your cooler if you let them know you have Celiac and/or food allergies. If you’re flying internationally this works well on the outbound flight, but remember some foods may be prohibited to bring in to other countries, and your food for your return flight may need to consist of solids and pre-packaged foods. I’ve lost cheese going into England and for some reason my hard boiled eggs in the return flight before.

    Thermos makes some great cooler totes as do several other manufacturers. Freeze water in ziplock bags in the bottom a couple days in advance for a solid block of ice that lasts well and takes up less space than cubes. And remember, the more you travel the easier it gets!

    • http://travelnwellness.com/ Paul

      Hey Jo,

      This is some excellent information! I had no idea Celiacs could get a note and bring food through security on domestic flights.

      And, that’s right! Practice makes perfect. Initially traveling as a Celiac is very difficult, but as you gain more and more experience, it becomes much easier!

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