Gluten Free Fitness

How to Eat Safely & Gluten Free Anywhere (Even Without a Gluten Free Menu)

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This past week I had to travel for work.  This is something I do not have to do very often, just a few times a year.  I was gone Tuesday through Friday, so 4 days of being unable to prepare my own food.

The thought of that can be a little scary for us celiacs sometimes.  I can be a bit of a control freak under the best of situations, but when you take away the power for me to prepare my own food and put my health and well being into a strangers hands, it makes me a little squirrely.

But just a little.

Here’s why

I have learned over the years (I think it’s 7 years or so, I lose track on a regular basis) that I have been gluten free I have eaten many, many times in restaurants without a dedicated gluten free menu.  Of course it is always nice when a gluten free menu is available.  It gives a sense of security.

To me though, I think it is important for us to not get complacent just because a restaurant has a gluten free menu.  There may be a gluten free menu, but that does not necessarily mean that YOUR server/chef/etc. is familiar with what serving a celiac entails.

And so it is up to us to always educate, in a very kind, compassionate, understanding, yet firm, manner.

This trip took me to Annapolis, Maryland.  There are quite a few gluten free friendly establishments in Annapolis, as I discovered when doing my pre-trip research.  But-I was on a business trip, without a car, and my dining options were limited to what was close as well as acceptable to my companions.  There were also meals in which the locations were pre chosen for our whole group.

Not to worry, I come armed with a boatload of patience and education.

Here are 5 tips to make sure you can always get a safe, gluten free meal:

1) If possible, call ahead.  If that is not possible, make your needs known as quickly as possible upon arriving at the restaurant.

Example: dinner one night was at a Japanese steakhouse .  The meal was to be done around a hibachi table, where the chef is also the entertainment.  Good times, but a celiacs nightmare.  I did get the number for the restaurant to call ahead but didn’t have time during the day.  When we arrived, I spoke to the gentleman at the front desk and explained the situation, specifically mentioning that soy sauce was unsafe to come into contact with my food.   After exclaiming “soy sauce is in everything!” which made me a bit nervous, he said he would speak with the chefs.  We discussed the possibility of my food being prepared separately in the back on a dedicated clean flat top with clean utensils.  He explained to me that one cream sauce would be safe, but the ginger sauce/salad dressing was not.  Obviously fried rice was out of the question since it is prepared with soy sauce, but since I am mostly grain free I skipped rice entirely.  (Steamed rice would be perfectly safe.)  Once seated, I explained again to the server the situation, and also mentioned to her that I had discussed it with the other gentleman.  I saw them confer before she went into the back with my order.  When she returned, she assured me that my food was being prepared in the back in a dedicated area, and that it would be prepared without any soy sauce or other sauces potentially containing soy sauce.  I was able to enjoy the hibachi show with my colleagues, and enjoyed a perfectly safe meal.

2) Choose naturally gluten free items as much as possible.

Look for meat, poultry, fish or vegetable dishes that appear to be gluten free on the menu. Salads with a grilled protein source, or a steak are my go to options.  Even if it appears to be naturally gluten free, alert your server of your needs and ask questions.  If a salad, always ask exactly what is on the salad as not to be surprised with fried (in a shared fryer) onion strings on top of your salad.  Soups are often thickened with flour or may have a wheat containing base, and require questioning the chef.  While in Annapolis we went to the Ram’s Head Tavern for dinner.  It was absolutely freezing there, and hot soup sounded wonderful.  I asked the server about 2 soups that sounded possibly gluten free, and she was able to ask the chef.  One was not safe, but the black bean soup was, and I was able to warm up a bit.  (The naturally gluten free glass of wine helped as well.)  I had a Greek salad with grilled chicken added for a flavorful and safe main course.  I also made sure there was nothing added to the chicken prior to grilling, so keep that in mind.  A piece of nicely prepared and seasoned protein, some potatoes, and veggies can make a spectacular, safe, healthy, and naturally gluten free meal.

3) Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions

Restaurants want you to have a safe meal.  They don’t want anyone to be sick and give a bad report of them, regardless of the reason.  Do not be shy.  Make your needs known, but of course in a kind and understanding manner.  Don’t show up at their busiest time and insist on custom made meals that are completely off the menu.  Be reasonable, and they will be reasonable back and keep you safe.

4) Don’t be afraid to use a script or a dining card

Especially if you are new to this whole gluten free thing, don’t be afraid to make yourself a little cheat sheet or hand over a dining card, like the ones made by Triumph Dining.  Those can be especially helpful if you have a potential language barrier, as they are printed with the language of whatever ethnic cuisine is in question.  You don’t want to forget to address cross contamination issues because you only focused on the ingredients.  If you think you may miss something, write it down.

5) Be friendly, courteous, and clear in your directions and needs

People will always want to help you more if you are nice.  The old adage “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is an old adage for a reason.  It’s true.  People can help you more easily if you are clear about your needs.  Answer any question they have clearly, completely, and nicely.  Humor never hurts either.  Most servers will remember someone who is kind and funny.

After being fed well and safely, express your appreciation

This will help not just you, but the others who come after you.  Tip well.  If it is a local spot, frequent it to express your appreciation.  It’s a win-win, as you now have set the standard for a safe meal and are giving the restaurant more business.  Submit a review on Yelp, Tripadvisor, or your restaurant search engine of choice.  These are keys to restaurant business these days.

Don’t be afraid to travel.  Go, eat well, and eat safely.

What are your best tips for dining out safely?  Please share them in the comments!

ABC News-Really? The disappointing news piece and the Gluten Free Fit opinion

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Nightline, an ABC news show, aired an episode last week where they discussed the gluten free diet, celiac disease, and living with celiac disease.

Personally, I thought this particular piece was pretty terrible.

Kind of horrific, in fact.

Before I go any further into my rant, here is the piece so you can watch for yourself.  It was titled “Is Gluten Free Good?”

  • They start off with touting all the celebrities that are on a gluten free diet, and then of course, Chelsea Clinton’s gluten free wedding cake.  It’s portrayed as a fad diet right off the bat.
  • Celiac disease isn’t even mentioned until almost 2 minutes into the 6 minute clip.
  • Elisabeth Hasselbeck is pictured in front of a freezer, stating that this is where all her food comes from.  WHAT?! Are you kidding me right now?!  No mention whatsoever of ANY naturally gluten free food.  You’d think that there is no life, or even eating, without pasta.
  • She also states that she believes in “replacing” foods in a gluten free diet, not eliminating them.  I would agree with this if by saying replace, she meant replacing refined flour items with fruits, vegetables, all the naturally gluten free bounty that nature avails us.  But no.  She was talking about replacing gluten breads and pastas with gluten free substitutes.  Hence the need to stand in front of the freezer, and not in the produce section.  In my article on my top 5 choices of gluten free carbohydrate sources, not one of them is found in a freezer.
  • E.H. also encourages people to adopt a gluten free diet without any kind of medical testing.
  • Dr. Green (bless his heart) mentions that there are no benefits for those without celiac disease to go gluten free, and that there is no weight loss guarantee on a gluten free diet, as we all know.  I even did a 5 part series of posts about weight issues and the gluten free diet.  You can eat a crappy nutrition yet calorie dense gluten free diet just as easily as you can on a “regular” diet.
  • However, they also indicate that a gluten free diet can be dangerous.  WHAT?!?  Dr. Green actually says, and I quote “a gluten free diet is not entirely healthy.”  I will give him a little slack, in the sense that if someone is only eating refined and processed gluten free crap, that they will receive even less nutrition than the standard American crap diet.  This is true.  BUT (and this is a big but, people, really big, the biggest butt of them all[ intentional]) a gluten free diet can also be incredibly healthy. You have to look at the big picture!  Eat naturally gluten free real food.  Meats, fish, poultry, veggies, fruits, dairy (if you can tolerate it, another can of worms for another day,) nuts/seeds, oils, nut butters, rice, potato, etc.  There is a BOUNTY of naturally gluten free foods.   I GUARANTEE that a gluten free diet can be extremely healthy.  I GUARANTEE that you will get plenty of fiber if you just eat some damn VEGGIES!!
  • Dr. Green mentions calcium deficiency.  Many people, not just those with celiac disease or that are on a gluten free diet, have calcium deficiency.  He also doesn’t mention that many of those diagnosed with celiac disease are also intolerant to dairy, and thus must find alternative sources of calcium in their diets.  Or that the damage done to the villi often causes impaired nutrient absorption and therefore, deficiency.  I covered this in Common Nutrient Absorption Issues in Celiac Disease and What to Do About It.

Overall, I was incredibly disappointed.  There has been so many great news pieces done on celiac disease and gluten intolerance lately that this was like a kick in the teeth.  This was a wonderful opportunity for education and discussion on the beauty of naturally gluten free food, on the importance of eating “real food,” how you CAN get nutrition in your diet, how celiac disease is underdiagnosed, and it wasn’t that at all.

I understand it was only a short segment, and that editing is done to the Nth degree, and that what ended up in the final cut may not have been Dr. Green’s intention at all.  But the implication that a gluten free diet is inherently unhealthy really,really, ticks me off.

As always, it’s the choices you make in the QUALITY of your food that matter, not just the gluten or gluten free status.

OK, I’m going to jump down off my soapbox and give you guys the floor.  What did you think?

And, if you’re new here and didn’t get turned off by my little rant, go ahead and check out Gluten Free and Fit 101 for tips on how to get going on a HEALTHY gluten free diet.

See, you can tell I’m upset.  That’s a lot of caps 😉