Get Real, Gluten Freaks: A Plea From a Coeliac Traveller
Most of the time when I travel, I get pretty sick. By the time I come home, I’m a total mess, and have about a month-long hangover to cure. Apart from the odd bout of food poisoning, I’ve never contracted any rare tropical viruses or severe STDs – instead, I suffer from an autoimmune disorder called coeliac disease, which means my body cannot process gluten and basically attacks my digestive system if I consume even the smallest amount of it.
Short term, I feel like I have been hit by a truck. I might vomit. I might get diarrhoea, super bad stomach cramps or a migraine (not to mention I get so bloated that more than once, I have had to explain to friends that no, it’s not possible I’m pregnant).
At home, it’s pretty easy to manage. I can cook my own food; I have access to contamination-free cooking utensils and an organic gluten-free grocery store right on my doorstep. However, when you’re living in a remote Mexican village, it’s kind of difficult to ask the local taco-stand guy about his ingredients and cooking methods, not to mention pass up doughnuts when you’re five tequila shots deep. There are also times when avoiding possibly contaminated food can appear more awkward than waking up after a one night stand. When a nun throws a dinner party in your honour, it’s rude to decline.
If I cared as much about my health a fraction of how much I care about my cat, I would be better at laying off the gluten; but in reality, my borderline-unhealthy obsession with food sometimes gets in the way. I often (always) plan my day around what I’m going to eat, and I’m not ashamed to admit that a couple of times, I have lead boys to believe that I was going home with them purely so I could get snacks. To those males – I am sorry that the only thing that went into my mouth those nights was a burger.
In general, people I have come across are usually pretty considerate about me being coeliac, and only a few have resorted to the nickname “glutard”. I do get kind of pissed off when waiters don’t know what coeliac is, and even more pissed off when they pass it off with, “Our bread’s organic – sure you don’t want to try it?” But the one thing that makes me really angry—even moreso than a Jetstar flight—is being automatically lumped into the ever-growing class of “part-time diet freaks”. This demographic is mainly comprised of 16-to-25-year-old Instagram-loving white females who will fork out an extra $1-4 for gluten-free toast at brunch with the girls, despite having inhaled a pizza the night before.
The fact that such a demographic exists has made me do some deep, hard thinking about society. It’s the new first-world privilege. One theory is that with house prices rising faster than the sea level, our generation has given up on the first-home dream and has instead focused our efforts on something more achievable: breaking the world record for the number of #glutenfree hashtags.
Let’s clear something up: a gluten-free diet is not necessarily a healthy one. It generally contains more fat, not to mention costs an estimated $2500USD more a year. Evidence is usually found in your nearest trendy eatery: the menu will have gluten-free symbols next to selected food items or a gluten-free substitution charge. Nine times out of ten, this label is bullshit, but usually has success convincing Lulu Lemon-wearing food bloggers that something deep fried and covered in salt can be nutritious.
Personally, I know five people who have gone gluten free for no medical reason. I may look like I’m about to have twins when I eat gluten, but they don’t. What’s more, around the world, there are people who suffer swollen bellies for a very different reason: a prolonged lack of access to nutritionally sustaining food.
Seeing as a larger proportion of the world population is starving, it is simply ridiculous that some people voluntarily omit a food group from their diet because a magazine article written by someone with no nutritional qualifications suggested doing so. Perhaps the $20 extra these girls spend a week on gluten-free bread could go towards sponsoring a child. Or even feeding a child in their local city who gets sent to school without a packed lunch.
Food for thought, eh?
Cover by Cheryl Chan