Without a doubt, one of the most stressful things about being celiac or gluten-intolerant is traveling. It’s one thing to carefully stock your kitchen, research local restaurants, or take your own lunch to work. It’s quite another to travel to a foreign land where you don’t recognize the food, don’t speak the language, and don’t understand the cultural norms of eating a meal.
Jodi Ettenberg, founder of the travel blog Legal Nomads, knows this pain all too well. After 10 years of nomadic living all around the globe, she’s become an expert on how to eat as safely as possible in any corner of the world. But it didn’t start out like that.
“I was young and stupid at first,” says Jodi. “I was diagnosed [with celiac disease] in the early 2000s and I followed the diet strictly for a few years, but only until I felt better. Despite my doctor explaining that it was a lifelong problem, I ignored her and went back to eating gluten — only, of course, to find myself incredibly sick a few years later. Now, I pay very close attention and never cheat.”
When Jodi was first diagnosed, she was so sick she couldn’t eat dairy or even gluten-free grains like rice. There wasn’t much in the way of gluten awareness at that time, so eating at restaurants was a big risk.
To compensate, she hit the kitchen and learned to cook meals from cuisines that were naturally gluten-free.
“I made lots of Vietnamese and Thai food, substituting tamari in the place of soy when it was called for,” Jodi says. “I relied on fish sauce instead for that salty, umami taste. Indian food, Mexican food. The diagnosis took away the taste palate I grew up with in Canada, but gave me a whole new one in the form of spices, herbs, and exciting food.”
“When newly diagnosed celiacs come to me lamenting the loss of chicken pot pie or mac and cheese, I urge them to explore international options instead that are gluten-free by nature,” she adds. “Processed food isn’t great, even if it’s gluten-free! And now we have access to great grains like teff and quinoa, which were less available when I was diagnosed. The possibilities are endless, even though it feels like a big loss at first.”
After years on the road, Jodi is a treasure trove of information about eating gluten-free. In fact, she’s even launched a set of gluten-free translation cards that make it easier for celiacs to politely communicate their dietary restrictions with chefs and servers in 10 countries and counting. We sat down with her to get her favorite tips for celiacs consumed by wanderlust.
What’s the hardest thing about eating gluten-free while traveling?
Communicating the severity of the issue: it’s not just avoiding gluten, it’s also the intricacies of cross-contamination and hidden problems in sauces and condiments that contain gluten. And, for me at least, the sadness of not being able to learn though food to the extent I’d like — though grateful I can travel at all!
What advice/tips do you have for eating gluten-free on the road?
- Research. This includes Wikipedia and other sources about meals in the country. Learn what the main dishes are and what ingredients are used. Include condiments in your research and go without if there’s a concern: Maggi, bouillon cubes (with wheat), soy sauce, oyster sauce — these are some of many umami add-ons that can wreak havoc.
- Bring a celiac translation card that accounts for cross-contamination. Biased, I know, but I built them because it was a need I had on my own travels.
- Bring your own snacks, just in case. You can find raw nuts or simple snacks at local supermarkets, and I keep them with me as needed in case I struggle to find a place that is safe to eat.
- Street food has been a great source of joy and safe eating. It’s a transparent kitchen; I can communicate my needs, and then watch how it’s made. Vendors usually have no trouble modifying the meals for me. In my experience, this is far more reliable than restaurants in far away places where someone can assure me that it’s gluten-free, but I can’t see it being made.
- Look up local health food stores and ask them for suggestions. Almost every country I’ve traveled to has had gluten-free products available in bio or health shops. These can be source not only for snacks, but also for recommendations on healthy spots to eat.
How has the gluten-free travel world changed in the last 10 years?
It has changed tremendously. It’s mostly positive, but the increased awareness is a double-edged sword. On one hand, far more people are aware of the disease, understanding it’s not just about avoiding bread, but that it’s an autoimmune condition. There are more gluten-free products that I can buy at supermarkets and stores. Plus, there are tons of creative bakers, chefs, and food professionals whose own food restrictions have inspired them to build businesses in a world that a decade ago would have been too niche for their business to survive.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of eye-rolling from restaurant staff and/or friends and family with the rise of non-celiac gluten-free diets. I understand many people cut out gluten for health reasons, be it autoimmune or otherwise. It’s not my place to comment on the veracity of those decisions, but celiacs are negatively impacted at times.
Many people who cut out gluten just aren’t taking care for cross-contamination. And worse, some are lying to restaurants and saying they’re celiac, and then ordering a brownie for dessert. I’ve watched it happen many times. This communicates terrible things about the disease to restaurants. It makes it harder for celiacs to be taken seriously and eat safely.
If you want to cut out gluten, or sugar, or whatever — fine! Just don’t lie and say you’re celiac when you’re not.
What are some of your favorite countries/places for eating gluten-free?
Italy is without a doubt the easiest place to travel as a celiac. I first assumed that I’d be eating cardboard in the land of pasta, but I was very wrong. Not only is Italy extremely knowledgeable about celiac disease due to the high prevalence in the local population, but it’s a country that loves to eat. So they’ve made sure to develop fantastic gluten-free options that would make any celiac tear up: handmade corn pastas, beautiful polenta dishes, and fantastic gluten-free pizzas with globs of fresh mozzarella.
For newly diagnosed celiacs, I always say: start with Italy.
Personally, Vietnam was one of my favorites — specifically the south. Rice, tapioca, and mung bean noodles abound. Fish sauce is used far more than soy sauce. The food is fantastic and light, the grilled pork balanced out with piles of fresh herbs like perilla and Vietnamese coriander. I ate there for several years in a row and miss it every day.
What are the hardest places to eat gluten-free?
I found the most trouble during my travels to China: Beijing, Chengdu, Nanning, and more. While people were very nice, there is no knowledge or care of cross-contamination, and food restrictions are not culturally a part of day-to-day life the way they are in the West. I found it very difficult to eat safely, and have not spent much time there since as a result. It’s unfortunate because there is so much to see! But it was exhausting and I kept getting sick.
I found Japan very difficult, but that trip is what prompted me to launch the celiac card, so now that I have those, I’m excited to return! For Japan, 7-11 snacks and sashimi were also an easy go-to, so I found it far less anxiety-inducing than China.
Talk about why you created the celiac translation cards.
I traveled to Japan and explored for several weeks with a simple gluten-free card — and then I got sick each day. I even had a guide for some of the time but still got sick. After I returned, I thought, “This can’t just be me having this difficulty.” The issue was twofold: one, it was hard to communicate the extent of what has gluten beyond just soy sauce and wheat, and two, cross-contamination is a problem.
I decided to write my own gluten-free card, using local food names and expressly mentioning cross-contamination. I included an apology to the chefs, because culturally I worried about offending them, since I would be changing their meal. I hired a translator to translate the card, and then made it available to a few celiac readers who were going to Japan.
They didn’t get sick. So, I hired a second translator to confirm the translation’s accuracy, and the Gluten-Free Cards Project was born.
Each card has a long, free guide using the principles above: what foods are safe/unsafe and where to find the health shops. I’ve done 10 countries so far, and have five more in the works to be released soon. Each card is translated twice to confirm the accuracy of the translation.
It’s been a very rewarding project. There are wonderful, free cards available to those who are gluten-free for other reasons, but for celiacs, cross-contamination is something we can’t avoid.
Yes, the cards are more cumbersome and some places may just say, “Sorry we can’t help you.” But that’s OK. It’s still worth it for me because I get to safely explore the world while trying to be as respectful as I can to the local culture.
What happens when you get glutened? Any tips for recovering faster?
It’s not pretty. Intestinal distress, headaches, nausea, skin rashes, fatigue, canker sores, and joint pain and aches for the next few days, along with feeling extremely blue from the systemic inflammation. There are some celiacs who claim that they are fine with cross-contamination, that their symptoms “aren’t bad” — but the damage to a celiac’s body is ongoing even if symptoms aren’t severe.
When inadvertently glutened, I do the following:
- First, take a digestive enzyme (I use one called Gluten-Ease) that contains dipeptidyl peptidase (DPP-IV). To be clear, this is only after mistakenly glutening, not to “tolerate” gluten, because that’s not how it works as a celiac. You can’t tolerate gluten.
- Not long after, I take an activated charcoal pill. I’ve had these on me during many years of travel and don’t leave home without them.
- Bee pollen: This is a new part of my regimen and I find it helps bring down the inflammation. I take one teaspoon with water and with the next meal I’m able to tolerate. (Obviously not recommended if you can’t tolerate bee pollen!)
- Light eating and heavy hydration: My stomach isn’t interested in much after a glutening, so I’ll opt for green juice (and add the bee pollen there), or some soup.
- With that meal, a probiotic: I travel with shelf-stable probiotics and make sure I take it with my next meal.
- Rest: Everyone is different and since celiac is an autoimmune disease, some people have comorbid conditions that make their recovery slower than others. Rest up until you feel better, and don’t push through the symptoms. Your body is telling you something; it’s important to listen!
What’s a gluten-free food from your travels that you dream about?
Bun rieu cua, my favorite soup from Vietnam. Tomato and crab soup with pork sausage, tofu and coagulated blood, rice noodles, herbs, and a rich pork broth.