The Challenges of Traveling with Food Allergies

Heeeeeey, it’s been awhile since I’ve been motivated to write some narrative about my travels, sorry about that!

I was recently at a travel conference in Milwaukee (holla Milwaukee!!) and I was bluntly reminded of why I started a travel blog in the first place, so I wanted to share the story and then some gluten free travel tips or well, traveling with food allergies pain in the ass things I’ve noticed.

It all started when this really special soul, Erin, ran up to me in a networking event. Mind you, I had no idea who she was, which was always some kind of terrifying when a person walks up to you knowing your first and last name.

Traveling with Food Allergies

Panic-stricken, I tried to channel my best inner Shakespearean actor and feign recognition. Trust me, I’m not nearly cool enough for people to come up to me that know my name without me knowing who they are.

As the kind, incredible soul that she is, she went on to explain exactly how she knew me and how I helped to shape her life.

The story goes that we met 3 years prior at my very first travel blogging conference ever, the Women in Travel Summit in Boston, MA in 2015. I’ve pretty much blacked out that whole conference because I was a hot mess of a networker but it was also incredible and the people I met have really changed and shaped my life since, cough cough Steph, I just had no idea I did that for anyone else.

Erin shared the touching story of meeting me and hearing about me talk about starting a travel blog to showcase traveling with food allergies and celiac disease. She has a debilitating peanut allergy and had always dreamed of going to Thailand but feared it for the sheer magnitude of peanut use.

The next thing she said quite literally made me tear up.

She said after talking to me and reading my blog for awhile and seeing how I was managing with my allergies, she wound up booking that ticket.

Now, I’m not going to start booking motivational speaking engagements anytime soon, but that’s pretty freaking cool.

Thank you, Erin, for being vulnerable and for reigniting the spark inside me to continue my mission that I initially worked so hard to spread. PS. Yes, for those of you who are closet fairytale lovers, Erin and I are now two peas in a pod, and I think we will have a friendship that lasts a lifetime 🙂

Traveling with Food Allergies - Yes, you can do it!

Anyways…..

It’s been a long time since I’ve shared personal anecdotes and struggles about traveling with food allergies and celiacs disease and I figured today was a great day to do so!

I’ve realized that most of my accounts of GF or food allergy travel have been fairly light-hearted, I even documented a pooping incident that one time. But it’s not all fine and dandy all the time. I’m not perfect and people telling me “no” really gets to me, so I struggle with limited diets. But after 8 years being gluten free and 6 years with death food allergies, I’ve found ways to cope.

I wanted to share with you some of the pain in the ass things that plague travelers who have food limitations and hopefully some advice to help combat them.

Anxiety

This is going to be a little vulnerable for a few here, bear with me. Over the last year or so, I’ve had to come to terms with an ever-growing level of anxiety surrounding my food allergies. Unlike most millennials, I’ve actually never struggled with anxiety. I’ve always been pretty fearless and I often just let things slide off my back without much worry.

Ever since I went to the hospital two years ago for an anaphylaxis response to something, I’ve found myself over analyzing the size of lips and the scratchiness of my tongue and whether a red mark is the beginning of hives. I’ve actually almost sent myself to the hospital by overreacting to some absent-minded scratching. Constantly being anonymous in new cities has always been the draw of traveling for me. I love not having a clue what a city holds and exploring and figuring things out. Now, I get anxiety going in subways, or long bus or train rides, or even into a bathroom by myself if there’s even a glimmer that I may have eaten something I was allergic to.

It’s something I’m working on, but it’s definitely a work in progress. I’ve taught myself things I can do to take my mind off of overanalyzing my bodily reactions and I know when I need to stop talking about my allergies with people. Anxiety is something that may plague you if you start traveling with food allergies a lot.

Anxiety over Traveling with Food Allergies

Not Having Anything To Eat

This is my biggest challenge. I’m a food fiend. I’d probably eat a box of nails if someone told me they were edible and it was the only thing available. So when I’m in a situation with very limited or no options, it seriously upsets me. This typically revolves around the gluten thing or the breakfast meal.

On-the-go food in the Western world is a pain in the ass for celiacs. Yes, we can eat a salad, but news flash, I don’t actually want to eat a fucking piece of wet lettuce while you eat a cheeseburger and fries.

I hate drawing attention to the fact that I can’t eat a lot of shit, so when there isn’t an easy option, I really take it personally and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been overcome with flowing tears and had to run to a bathroom to hide the fact that I was literally crying over not being able to eat a breakfast sandwich.

No matter how much you prepare, how many phone calls or emails you send before you arrive somewhere, if you’re traveling, there will be an instance where you don’t have a viable food option. Don’t be afraid to cry. It sucks when it feels like your body is fighting you back, believe me. People get it. If they don’t kick them in the shin until they do.

I also get hungry like every 2 hours, and apparently, 95% of humanity doesn’t need solid food every two hours, so there are often times when I don’t have access to food when I’m hungry. I try to travel with approximately 35 granola bars now to be prepared should I find myself in a “No food for you” scenario. But I do still cry, you’re not alone.

Traveling with Food Allergies - Its Ok to Cry When You Have Nothing You Can Eat

Getting Stupid Drunk

This may seem funny to most of you but when you’re gluten free, beer is off limits. In the US or London or most parts of Europe, this isn’t an issue really. But in Nicaragua or Thailand or other developing countries, it’s a pain in the ass. These places don’t have good wine, don’t even know what cider is half the time, and so I get stuck with rum or some other kind of hard liquor infused with speed.

I’m not great with liquor when it comes to drinking and I always find myself having a drink for every beer my friends are drinking, newsflash: this doesn’t end well. It’s also a stupid pain in the ass for day drinking. Sorry if you feel differently but gin and tonics are just not meant to be drank prior to noon. And forget drinking all day and all night, if I have a cocktail at 10am I’ll be lucky to have my eyes open at 5pm.

The other fun thing with celiac is that if I have consumed gluten accidentally and then I try to drink within a few days of that, I’m done. Gluten, if you didn’t know, actually destroys the intestines of people with celiac disease. So if I’ve eaten gluten it makes it 10x easier for alcohol to get into my blood system and things don’t end well.  So I have to pay a lot more attention to what I drink when traveling with food allergies.

Traveling with Food Allergies - It may cause you to spend way more money

Spending Way More $$

This goes hand in hand with my alcohol point above. A $0.50 beer from a bodega in Vietnam is much cheaper than a $3 cocktail. Food as well often gets significantly more expensive on the road at times. I was at a restaurant the other day where my friend could get a $12 sandwich but literally, the cheapest thing I was able to eat on the menu other than a salad was a $28 steak.

Breakfast is a super pain in the ass meal for me, I can’t eat eggs and I’m gluten free so bye pancakes, waffles, eggs, omelettes, granola, english muffin, bagel, should I go on? So I end up concocting things with sides a lot and believe it or not some bacon and homefries and fruit often ends up costing more than an omelette!

 

Above all, the best thing you can do is to be as prepared as possible when traveling with food allergies. Bring plenty of granola bars or snacks that travel well, research your destination and have a couple dishes that you’ll know you can eat practically anywhere, even scope out a couple restaurants in advance, and above all else be prepared with the tools to combat reactions.

For gluten, I always travel with Papaya Enzyme. It has helped my digestion and especially helps me bounce back after gluten.

For allergies, I carry my epipen everywhere I go, literally. If you’re American and the epipen costs are outrageous, scoot over to Canada where you can get one over the counter for $100 or do some research where you’re going, most places in Europe will sell them to you over the counter. If I’m eating something sketchy that I don’t know about, I let someone know who I’m with that I have an epipen on me and where to stick it should I turn blue. It’s extreme but it helps my anxiety. 

Above all, find ways of coping with the challenges of traveling with food allergies or gluten free, and don’t let it stop you from seeing the world! 

 

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The Challenges of Traveling with Food Allergies

 

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Alexa
Alexa

I’m so glad I’m not the only one who does the granola bar thing!!! I have a nut allergy and attend a lot of conferences for work, and the food options are awful. Notifying the organizers ahead of time doesn’t seem to help. Usually there’s a “regular” meal and a “vegetarian” meal, neither of which have ingredients, and the caterer is nowhere to be seen. So I have to choose between eating chips & granola bars and hoping I don’t starve, or leaving the venue to hunt for food (and missing out on that critical lunchtime networking). It is frustrating… Read more »

Amanda Y
Amanda Y

It’s so good to read these facts and know I’m not alone. The expensive meals, the restrictions, wanting to cry, and carrying a million granola bars (seriously, half my luggage at any time seems to be food not clothing), it’s all so relatable! Breakfast is definitely the worst–I’m celiac PLUS pork and peanut allergies.

Todra Payne
Todra Payne

I’m going to send this post to my a dear friend who has gluten intolerance and other food allergies! He’s always concerned about how he’ll manage when he travels abroad. It’s good to see you addressing it.

rachel
rachel

Thank you for an interesting article. I empathize with your food issues when traveling and being around friends. I think people who go dairy-free also have challenges when travelling and dairy gets hidden in foods sometimes. I guess I have dealt with things by not eating out much, I go to vegetable and fruit markets. I choose to travel more and have my own food issues but in a different direction. I am a live plant-based eater (aka vegan). I require raw fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Not an issue when it is Summer and everything is plentiful or… Read more »

Ali
Ali

Yes!!!! I have ulcerative colitis, which is a digestive disease that affects my colon. Over the past few years, I’ve done tons of experimenting with food to figure out what works & what doesn’t. I’ve found that I do much better when I don’t eat gluten (I seriously thought it was normal to feel bloated after eating until I eliminated gluten), I found out I’m lactose intolerant, & I can’t eat eggs or beans because of how my gut reacts. I also have to limit things like alcohol & corn. Since I’m not celiac, I can be a little more… Read more »

Joëlle
Joëlle

Travelling with celiac disease must be so hard sometimes. Great that you are showing it’s possible nevertheless and it shouldn’t keep you from exploring! I think the good thing is that there in general is more and more awareness regarding food allergies (at least in Europe there clearly is more choice in supermarkets and restaurants now for celiacs). I remember I was quite anxious when travelling to South East Asia for the first time because of my peanut allergy, but after three successful month-long trips, I don’t worry that much anymore. If you are reading this and are also allergic… Read more »

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