Traveling with Celiac Disease
By Whitney Hall
ARCC Regional Director & Celiac Authority
Traveling with Celiac Disease or other serious food allergies can feel daunting. I have lived abroad off and on for the past 10 years, but most recently spent the past 3 years in Central America. There was a time before this that I didn’t think traveling and living abroad would ever be possible given my diet restrictions.
In college, I suddenly lost 15 pounds on an already skinny frame over a matter of months. I caught mono living in a college dorm and felt tired all the time, taking multiple naps a day. But months after the mono passed I never felt better and had trouble keeping up with my classes. On top of that, I didn’t know why I was still losing weight. I started to notice I would feel sick after every meal. The campus doctor decided to test me for two autoimmune diseases: Crohn’s Disease and Celiac Disease. After a simple blood test, my diet and my life changed forever: I had Celiac.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was studying Italian and hoped to study abroad in Italy except for one thing: wheat. I had been to Italy once before with my family in high school and loved it, but the thought of traveling there for an extended period of time and not being able to eat the food made me change course. I began to study Spanish and explore an easier diet to navigate that was based in gluten free friendly foods: corn, rice, beans, meat and lots of fruit and vegetables.
A few years later, I did spend a week in Italy (mostly happily gaining weight eating risotto, salads and gelato) and finally began to feel like I had mastered my new diet. I still get sick sometimes from hidden gluten when eating out, but I have learned that it is better to be safe and eat a blander meal or stick with simple, whole foods rather than risk my health. If I could go back and give my younger self advice, I would encourage myself to not limit life’s opportunities by a food allergy.
While Celiac does not cause a life-threatening reaction like anaphylactic shock when you consume gluten, it is a serious illness where your body essentially attacks itself over time if you do not eliminate gluten from my diet. Yes, sometimes it is a pain and can make one anxious about ordering meals, but I have learned it’s possible to manage these restrictions and still explore wonderful corners of the world. It’s my hope that people with Celiac reading this will feel inspired to travel the world despite their allergy. Traveling with Celiac Disease doesn’t have to be a roadblock to exploring the world.
Often, parents call our office nervous about their child traveling with Celiac Disease. Whether it’s to a location across the world or even camping on one of our domestic programs, my coworkers and I are able to share our stories and advice which help give parents peace of mind. We would never want one of our students to feel like a door is closed to them because of a food allergy. Dietary restrictions or severe food allergies are a part of life (though maybe not a welcome one), and our Regional Directors work hard to ensure that our students are eating healthy local foods that accommodate student allergies and dietary restrictions, and learning other safe traveling habits like consuming safe water and eating peeled fruit.
We work with families to help them select programs that are a good fit for their child, particularly if a student has an allergy that causes anaphylaxis or a disease like Celiac. As an extra layer of precaution every leader on our programs is trained in Wilderness First Response, which is an 80 hour medical course designed for remote locations. The course teaches people how to respond in emergencies and recognize the signs of what an emergency is. Leaders are also taught how to administer Epinephrine and practice administering these injections with saline solution on their wilderness medicine course.
As for me, while I was living in Costa Rica the past few years, I discovered that I have an anaphylactic reaction to scorpion stings and just so happened to be living in the cloud forest where scorpions thrive. From that moment on, an Epi-Pen was always by my side. Life is full of unexpected surprises beyond our control, but it’s how we choose to manage these surprises and move forward that makes all the difference. I’m thankful that my nervousness about traveling with Celiac Disease or having an anaphylactic reaction to scorpion stings didn’t hold me back from going on safari in Tanzania, hiking into Machu Picchu, or exploring the unmatched beauty of the cloud forest in Costa Rica. At ARCC, we are proud to facilitate life-changing travel programs for teens, where safety and health are always our top priorities.
ARCC Programs has offered summer travel programs for teens for over 30 year. With travel programs for teens on six continents, there is something for everyone. Find a summer program on our website or request a catalog today.