Gluten-free Living: The Reality of Navigating the Restaurant World

This is the latest installment of the gluten-free living series! It's a long one and with no pictures, sorry! I'm blogging in bed while recovering but I have an awesome recipe post planned for you guys later this weekend! I hope you enjoy the post and that it gets your wheels turning!

We have briefly talked about eating gluten-free at restaurants before, but I truly think it is a subject that deserves it's own post. Eating gluten-free at restaurants is one of the most difficult things to do for newly gluten-free individuals and those who are seasoned veterans.

Have you seen this news? California Pizza Kitchen recently released a "gluten-free" menu which was celebrated until everyone read the disclaimer at the bottom. Essentially, CPK stated that they had a gluten-free menu which really is not safe for many people who are gluten-free. Confusing, right? Sadly, this breed of gluten-free menu is not uncommon. Now, that's not to say that there aren't restaurants that do the gluten-free thing properly - in fact, I think many places are getting better. But the reality is, many larger chain restaurants simply engage in near false advertising.

Why? That was my question when I saw the CPK menu. Why advertise something as gluten-free when it is plainly states that is not safe? The answer I came up with was simple: profit. Let's face it, gluten-free is the new it trend in the food world - people are going gluten-free to lose weight (bad idea by the way), because celebrities are doing it, or to simply try an alternative diet. The gluten-free label's new found spotlight has lead to many good things such as increased awareness about Celiac disease and gluten intolerance in the medical and public community. The new publicity has also, unfortunately, had some negative impacts. While I think the positive impacts like increased awareness and increased gfree product availability outweigh the negative aspects, the negative effects need to be discussed so we can work towards turning them into positives.

I brought up the CPK example because I think it perfectly illustrates the effect the media has had on gluten-free dining. On one hand, it is great that chain restaurants are recognizing the need for alternative diet options on their menus. On the other hand, it becomes crystal clear through their lack of follow through, that they are looking to increase the size of their wallets rather than feed a significant population safely. It is currently estimated that 1 in 133 people in the U.S. have Celiac disease . That is a huge population with multi-million dollar potential that is waiting to be tapped. The restaurant industry had become aware of this, and like any good business, is trying to capitalize on this. I take no issue with businesses acting in their own financial interest, but I do take issue when those businesses do not follow through and fail to take into account the health of the group they are targeting. Furthermore, the media and celebrity bandwagon has done little to legitimize gluten intolerance and celiac disease and unfortunately, these conditions are not always taken seriously.

There have been numerous negative stories about gluten-free living in the media. These range from stories about people purposefully selling gluten full goods as gluten-free to make money to girls using the label of gluten-free to cover up eating disorders . To this day, there are a handful of people that don't believe people can have an intolerance to gluten. This is partially because when gluten intolerant people are exposed to gluten, they typically do not exhibit the classic allergy reactions such as anaphylaxis (although this does happen to people, particularly those with gluten or wheat allergies). (Now is also a good time to note that intolerance and allergy are not the same thing. Intolerance refers to an autoimmune reaction while an allergy refers to an allergic reaction.) I think that the invisibility of gluten intolerance and Celiac disease causes it to be easily dismissed by the public and the media even though it seems rather silly to dismiss other invisible diseases such as lupus and diabetes.

Gluten free restaurant diners are often treated as a burden or a hardship. We are not taken seriously and often people assume that being gluten-free is a choice akin to veganism or vegetarianism. While yes, we choose to dine gluten-free, it is because we want to live a life free of debilitating illness and keep our bodies from revolting. It seems strange that gluten-free diners are often blamed for being "difficult" when it would be rare and extremely disturbing for the same restaurant to blame a diner who is allergic to shellfish for being a burden. People have a right to dine safely when they are paying for a service. The responsibility of safe dining not only falls on the food industry, waitstaff, chefs, and restaurants but also falls on the gluten-free diner. Here are some ways I think diners and restaurants can work together to provide an enjoyable and safe dining experience.

1. Be your own advocate: You are responsible for educating yourself and those around you about your condition. You have to advocate for a safe dining experience by asking your server about your meal, the kitchen, and any other concerning things. This is difficult because you often get dirty looks or snickers, but try to fight through it - I am still extremely uncomfortable about asking if things are gluten-free because I feel like people are judging me and I am making things difficult (In fact, I often make Brad ask for me - it's true). Restaurant staff - please make us feel welcome and not like a burden so that people feel comfortable talking to you.

2. Education: I can not stress the importance of education enough. If you have questions, Google them. Also, educate your waitstaff if they have questions. I actually like when servers ask me if certain ingredients are gluten free because it shows that they truly want me to have a good dining experience.

3. Support the places that go the extra mile: Support restaurants that have gone through the trouble to become certified gluten-free and that have provided the gluten-free community with safe and friendly service. I frequent places that are accommodating to my intolerance and do not treat me like a burden. I chose to spend my hard earned cash at those establishments versus those that do not go the extra mile (CPK) or treat me like an inconvenience.

4. Plan: Gluten-free diners - check out menus online or call ahead to ask about gluten-free options if you are dining somewhere new. This is extremely helpful because it make the dining experience less overwhelming, provides you some time to research if necessary,and also can help the restaurant prepare for your requests.

5. Communicate: This goes for both diners and restaurant staff. Diners - communicate your needs to the waitstaff or kitchen staff. They truly do not want you to get sick and need your help to ensure that your meal is safe. Restaurants - please do not dismiss gluten-free diners as difficult people - not all of us are following a trend and we do not aim to make your job miserable.

I hope my long, rambling post was helpful and if nothing else, can help facilitate some thought and discussion about gluten-free restaurant dining.