Posted on May 3, 2017
Oh, Bollox, I’m a Coeliac – Dealing with Social Anxiety around Eating Out
If you’ve recently been diagnosed as a coeliac, or you find that gluten has a really bad effect on you, this section is especially for you. Equally, if you have a glutenfree human in your life, this chunk is well worth a read to help you make their life a little easier, safer and more relaxing.
When I was finally diagnosed as a coeliac it was halfway through my first year of uni in Galway City. Looking back, I could not have been luckier. NUIG is probably the best college in Ireland for looking after coeliacs and the greater Galway area is known to have the highest concentration of coeliacs. I used to make jokes about the gene pool, but who knows?
The college restaurant had loads of gluten-free options, the chefs knew their stuff and the canteen ladies there are probably the most patient, saintly folk on earth. I was off to a good start. As long as I didn’t poison myself at breakfast or drunkenly forget what gluten was and eat a burger at Supermacs (yes, that happened once …) I’d be safe.
As I got more brave/less broke I started venturing out into the culinary scene. Over the years I’ve lived in Dublin, Galway, Cork and Donegal. Sadly I can’t name and shame the places that poisoned me. They would probably sue or something. So what I would say to my fellow newbie and veteran coeliacs is be vigilant! I used to be so awkward about asking for gluten-free stuff that my friends would speak up for me. It took a while for me to put on the big-girl pants. If I had been less of a wuss, I’m sure there would have been fewer poisoning incidents. So here are my top tips for happy eating out:
Try different words if the wait staff seem unsure – often coeliac doesn’t mean that much to people, but gluten free is more of a buzz phrase. If at that point they say, ‘Oh, I don’t think there’s dairy in that,’ be f***king worried. Say it’s a bit like a peanut or shellfish allergy and will make you really, really sick. I know it’s not technically that bad, of course, but you need to drive home that this is health, not fussiness.
Look for places that advertise their glutenfree-ness. Often there is a little sign on their menus – the anti-wheat-looking thing. These are lovely folks who have gone out of their way to make the effort. In fact, when you’re there say, ‘Cheers, lads, for being so sound.’
Get mains without buns. In, for example, an American-style diner, even if their chips are fried with floury things you could still get a chicken breast (essentially a chicken burger without the bun) with something else on the side. It won’t be the most exciting meal of your life, but if you don’t want to ask your friends/other half to go somewhere else, it’s a pretty good option for pub grub too.
Look to cuisines that are naturally gluten free. Unless there is a clear indication that they do gluten-free options, silly choices might be: Italian – pizza and pasta, folks; French – floury sauces, pastries, why do it to yourself?; American – often chips are coated in flour or there is wheat rusk in burgers; Chinese – there can be flour in the sauce or some confusion over barley maltextract being in sauces or not (sadly one of my biggest poisoning culprits). The safer bets: Japanese – just ask for tamari soy sauce and stay away from the tempura; Indian – one of the absolute best because so many things are made with rice or chickpea flour instead of wheat; Mexican – with foods based around meat, beans, veg and corn, you will be able to munch away on most of the menu; and finally, and a little surprisingly, Spanish – I lived in Spain for the summer the year after I was diagnosed and, though I always associated it with tasty bread and olive oil, an amazing number of dishes are based around meat, seafood, veg and rice.
If the staff are friendly and the chef seems accommodating, sometimes they will do normally floury things gluten free. One of the easiest ways to do this is ordering fish and chips and asking them to pan fry the fish without batter. Lots of restaurants have kindly done this for me – it’s extremely tasty, slightly better for you and not a huge bother to anyone!
While I think the mentality is changing in the medical profession in terms of the types of support offered to coeliacs, I don’t think anyone ever really talks about the mental aspect of being coeliac or the toll it can take on your confidence and self-esteem. I have an uncle who, due to the fear of being poisoned, having had it happen so many times in restaurants, does not eat out any more. Can you imagine that? Will not eat out for the rest of his life. Depressing stuff! For the first few years post-diagnosis – and, to be honest, sometimes still – going out for dinner made me feel anxious too.
What if people think I’m just being fussy? What if there’s nothing I can eat and we have to leave? What if it’s a first date and they think I’m weird? What if I do get poisoned and need to leave to be ill?
This is not the kind of stuff you want running through your head when you’re meant to be having a nice evening out. While I can’t guarantee these thoughts will never cross your mind again, I can promise it does get better, you do get more comfortable and I think if you have a light-hearted approach it won’t get you down.
I don’t make a joke of it, even though I make a joke of most things – your health is serious – but I do have a friendly chat with the waiter. If it’s a first date or eating with people I don’t know well, I won’t make a big song and dance about it – I usually just ask if I can order last. That gives me a little time to talk to the waiter without everyone hanging on my every word.
When you find restaurants that are really good at looking after you that cater for coeliacs, don’t be afraid to suggest them when going out – that takes the fear factor out of it for you and puts you at ease for the evening. After all, dinner out is meant to be fun, right? Finally, the not fun one. Trust your gut. If a place is making you nervous and you think they don’t understand, be ally clear about what you’re worried about. If they don’t reassure you? Leave. I remember so many times when I was poisoned and I wish, wish, wish I had done it! Never mind the pain you might feel in the aftermath, there’s also the long term damage it does to your body. You only get one. Look after it!