Hello readers and sorry it has been a while!
I am currently lucky enough to be travelling Asia for six months and blogging hasn’t been quite at the top of my list. However, I thought it would be a good idea to use some of my experiences to provide some tips on eating well and enjoying travel in Asia. Over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of articles documenting my experience of travelling gluten free in Asia as well as providing some ideas on places to visit. Today we will start with a quick summary of some of my tips for staying gluten free when you’re travelling.
Travelling gluten free isn’t just for people with Coeliac disease. In fact many people, whether gluten intolerant or not will find health improvements from reducing the amount of gluten in their diets at home and these benefits are carried through when you travel. Whether you have full blown Coeliac disease or just like to opt for some healthier choices, then I have a few useful tips on travelling gluten free abroad.
There are no hard and fast rules for trying to eat gluten free when away, because the degree to which gluten affects us differs from person to person. If you must remain 100% squeaky clean of gluten then you obviously need to be more strict with what you’re eating when you’re away. However, if making a few concessions every now and then – such as having a sauce with a bit of soy sauce in it – doesn’t have dire consequences for you, then just use common sense to decide if and when to bend your rules. While you want to remain well and energised when you travel, it is also a good time to be a bit more relaxed with your food so you get to experience more of a local culture.
The benefits of travelling gluten free
While I don’t stick to a completely grain free diet when abroad, I do believe that travelling gluten free can make a huge difference to your vitality during and after a holiday. You want to feel well and have the energy to get up everyday and make the most of your trip and you can’t do this if your health is slightly compromised all the time. Additionally in countries, like the ones I will visit in Southeast Asia, the occasional minor bit of food poisoning is an inherent part of life. To cope with this you need to be well and have a robust gut.
As discussed at length in this series of articles your gut is home to your immune system. A strong gut wall and healthy microbial balance is critical to every facet of your health. If you are constantly bombarding your gut with damaging gluten proteins then its ability to deal with other pathogens (bugs and bad bacteria) is compromised. You won’t recover as fast as you should and these things can hang on for weeks or even months.
I have been on a trip to Southeast Asia where my gut wasn’t in good shape and it really affected my time away. I was unable to participate in activities at least once a week due to severe digestive troubles and I generally lacked energy. This contrasts hugely to my experience this time where I suffer the occasional bit of digestive discomfort, but am overall very well. This is because I have spent the last year and a half trying to heal my gut and it is now in a much better condition. I will discuss specific actions you can take to support gut health when travelling in a later post.
Remaining strictly gluten free
If you have Coeliac disease or need to remain absolutely 100% free of gluten then you do need to be extra cautious when overseas. At times this can be pretty trying, particularly in countries where Coealic disease isn’t really an issue and people understandably aren’t aware of the importance of zero cross-contamination when preparing food. In these instances you may need to adjust your budget to allow you to dine at more upmarket places where you can properly communicate with staff and they can confirm you food will be 100% free of gluten.
In foreign countries making yourself and your dietary needs understood can often be a bit of a nightmare. It is always a good idea to look up the word for wheat/gluten and then you can combine that with a bit of sign language and hope you are getting through. Sometimes you just have to place faith in the food, but there will be times when something arrives different to what you expected and this can be disappointing, especially if you’re very hungry.
The Gluten Free Restaurant Cards from Celiactravel.com are also very useful. You can find a translation about your intolerance in 51 languages that you can print out or screen shot and carry around with you when you travel. However, as a warning some cooks (not necessarily in higher end restaurants) will not appreciate the need for absolute gluten free. They might understand and accept your allergy, but still not get the need for absolutely no contamination. This is because gluten intolerance and Coealiac disease is much more prevalent in Western countries and hence awareness is far greater.
In many parts of Asia there is an abundance of rice and rice noodle based dishes, which make life a bit easier. Rice is a good source of gluten free calories if you are struggling with other options. While I avoid rice at home I end up eating quite a lot of it in Asia. If it doesn’t do too much damage to your digestion it is a pretty safe accompaniment to any meal when you need some more substance. The thing to watch our for here are sauces, which may be made with soy sauce and therefore contain gluten.
In restaurants where salad is on the menu (they do them quite well in Thailand, Malaysia and Laos) these are a good choice for guaranteeing a gluten free meal. However, sometimes salads come with unexpected croutons so it is wise to mention that you cannot eat bread when you order. If you are worried the salad won’t be enough try ordering an additional boiled egg on top for some extra protein to keep you satiated.
There are times when finding gluten free snacks is particularly difficult. In these instances fruit, nuts or even crisps might be a good solution. As the author of a health blog you are not going to get me recommending crisps as a snack very often, but there are times when without convenience food you might not find anything gluten free for hours at a time. In these instances crisps might have a place. Where available though fruit and nuts are obviously going to be a better choice for their nutritive content. As usual you must check all packaged food, even nuts and plainer flavours of crisps. I recently discovered a packet of plain cashews, from which I had already eaten a nut, we coated in wheat. Apparently you can never be too careful!
While I am away I will continue to post information on the places we visit, with specific reference to travelling gluten free. I hope you find these articles helpful for enjoying gluten free travel and for tips on places that are slightly off the usual backpacker trail.