Celiac in Italy: A Love Story
Imagine this: I’m in what’s arguably the gluten capital of the world, sitting in the most picturesque hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and I’m ready to have my heart broken seeing plate after plate of mouth-watering pasta dishes fly by. This is what I remembered from my time living in Rome eight years ago. While Italy was a pretty Celiac-aware country at the time, I found that my meek “Senza glutine?” request was often met with a chuckle and a straight-up “No.” But this time around I was pleasantly surprised that things had changed. And by pleasantly surprised, I mean I was literally dancing in my chair when our server brought out an entirely gluten-free meal complete with GF pasta and a warm loaf of bread for dipping for the first time.
Earlier this month I took the trip of a lifetime to Tuscany and Rome with some of my very favorite people. Having food allergies/intolerances to what may be considered three of the top ingredients in Italian cooking (gluten, dairy, and pork), I was a little bummed that I probably wouldn’t be able to experience Italy’s food scene to the fullest. Or that I would get accidentally “glutened,” as I call it, and feel miserable for days. After all, this is how I felt years ago when I was living in Rome. So, I did what I’ve urged my patients with food allergies, intolerances, and restrictions to do for years: study up! A huge key to enjoying a dining or travel experience with restrictions is to feel prepared. Of course, the unknown of human error is always lurking in restaurants and elsewhere, but doing your own research and planning will help you feel more comfortable and ready to relax in what can often be a stressful situation. Here’s how I did it:
1. Hello, Google.
Grab a cup of coffee or glass of wine and plan to spend a little time researching the place you’re traveling to. You’ll want to know how easy or difficult it will be to navigate with your restrictions. With a quick Google, I was elated to see that things had changed for me in Italy. It appeared to be a much more Celiac-friendly country, even though it was likely already ahead the United States when I was there last. I read that Italy has a large amount of public awareness about Celiac disease, even to the point that people with Celiac disease are given vouchers from the government to buy GF food. Woah, imagine that. Italy has the same prevalence of Celiac disease as does the United States (about 1% of the population), but perhaps the country is more accommodating because gluten is such a staple in Italian cuisine. Celiac disease and the need for a gluten-free diet is viewed as a serious medical condition in Italy instead of a fad, which may have given rise to increased education and better care for patients as a result.
I also learned that I had previously been asking for GF food in the wrong way. In Italy, expressing that you have Celiac disease is taken more seriously than asking for food that is gluten-free. In fact, asking for the latter may result in receiving food that isn’t totally gluten-free, whereas saying you have Celiac disease will ensure that all steps to avoid cross-contamination are taken.
Look for allergen-friendly restaurants, shops, grocery stores, and cafes, and make a note of the ones you’ll want to visit. If it’s available (and if it’s your thing), you may want to check out their menu ahead of time to feel even more prepared. Diner or traveler reviews can be really helpful here too.
2. Learn the language.
I can’t stress this one enough. Learning some of the language used wherever you’re traveling to not only enriches your cultural experience, but it’ll make your life 100x easier when it comes to avoiding food allergy/restriction traps. Even learning a few key phrases can make you feel more confident when ordering at a restaurant, searching for goodies in local markets, or reading food labels. I memorized things like “Does this have gluten/dairy?” and “I have Celiac disease” and “I have a pork allergy.” I can’t tell you how immensely helpful this was. You can even find cards online that you can print out that will explain your allergy to servers in many different languages to ensure that the information is well-received. I’ve seen options that are free and for-purchase online.
Or, when in doubt, bust out that Google Translate app and let it do the work for you. No judgement, I did this all the time during my last trip.
One of my favorite words. Coming prepared with a few allergen-friendly snacks can be everything to you in a pinch. If you’re like me, the hanger is real when you go too long without eating (that’s hungry-anger in case you haven’t ever experienced that pleasant feeling). I brought peanut butter packets, GF granola or nut bars, organic/grass-fed beef jerky, and almond flour crackers with me in case the feeling hit and I wasn’t able to find something else I could safely eat.
And yes, I kept snacks in a fanny pack. That I wore. In public. No shame. #youdoyou
4. Come equipped.
Do you take dietary supplements to manage your condition? You won’t want to forget these. For me, I take daily probiotics and magnesium to stay regular (travel constipation is real. If you know, you know), digestive enzymes when I’m feeling the need with a heavier meal, and I always have ginger chews on deck for nausea. When traveling, I also like to boost my immune system a little more with oregano oil and elderberry syrup that I take in the morning.
Of course, these are all specific to my body, and your needs are likely different. And as always, you’ll want to check with your doctor before adding anything. Let me know if you ever want to chat about supplements that might work for you!
5. Keep an open mind.
This is one of the most important things. Without an open mind, you might have trouble fully enjoying your trip. Instead of preparing myself for the typical GF pasta or pizza crust that I’m used to (i.e. mushy and bland), I reminded myself to enjoy my food either way because I was in Italy and all was good. I was so beyond surprised at how freaking good GF pasta was that I had to ask if it was really gluten-free nearly every time I ate. It can be hard, but try to remember that eating isn’t always about the food, but rather the whole experience. And chances are you’re in a really cool location that you’re pumped to be in, so don’t let that get away.
Of course, be mindful of your allergies and restrictions, but don’t let fear control you. Have your supplements and/or meds ready (if that’s you), or have an up-do-date Epi pen if you need one.
Then order that pasta “senza glutine” and dig in. Delizioso!
Do you have some travel tips of your own? I’d love to hear!