This week I was contacted by the producer of The Restaurant; a reality TV show made by the BBC here in the UK. For those who don't know, the premise of the show is that couples compete over the series/season to prove they have what it takes to run a successful restaurant. Each week they are set different challenges to test different skills required to be restauranteurs. The overall winners are set up in a restaurant of their own; financially backed and personally supported by Raymond Blanc who has a big hand in the show.
The reason I was contacted by the shows producer is because in an episode to be aired on October 22nd in the UK the contestants are to be set the challenge of preparing meals for diners with special dietary needs, with a particular focus on those with coeliac/celiac disease. The contestants must therefore prepare a full meal free from gluten. Those of you who are coeliacs or must otherwise avoid gluten will know all too well that this is not an easy task at first!
This all gave me the idea of writing a blog about eating out in restaurants when you have a restricted diet due to food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances. Certainly when people are first diagnosed with coeliac disease, lactose intolerance or any othr condition which requires the removal of foods from the diet it can be very hard for them indeed. Particularly where wheat and dairy foods are concerned it can seem like an impossible task to avoid them as they are such a major part of the Western diet.
I'd like to talk about my own personal experiences and then it would be brilliant if you would add your own using the comments box below.
I have suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) since the age of 11 and it became clear fairly quickly that dairy foods were not doing me any good. They caused increased mucous production, which I could feel constantly in my throat, and also seemed to trigger headaches. Cheese happened to be my favourite food in the world so at that time there was no way I was going to give it up. My parents tried to get me to avoid it but didn't want to restrict me as I was already limited i other areas of my life by my illness.
As the years passed it also became obvious that gluten-containing foods were triggering symptoms as well. A lab test for anti-gliadin antibodies also confirmed a strong reaction. Gliadin is a protein component of gluten which is found in wheat and some other grains, mainly barley and rye. By the time I was 20 gluten-containing foods and dairy foods were triggering symptoms such as mental fogginess, restlessness, and poor concentration and memory
I now avoid gluten and dairy foods completely......which makes restaurant eating very difficult. I do and have always enjoyed food and the experience of eating out however so still visit restaurants relatively frequently.
I find that my dietary limitations affect my ability to visit restaurants in a few main ways:
1. Choice of Restaurant - I happen to like Italian food a lot but obviously this is not a good choice for me since the main dishes are pasta (gluten and maybe dairy) or pizza (gluten and definitely dairy)! Italian restaurants often offer salads and sometimes meat or fish dishes but obviously the emphasis is on pasta and pizza. Clearly then people with dietary restrictions are better off choosing to visit restaurants with a wider variety of dishes.
2. Lack of Menu Labelling - A big problem used to be that when you looked at a menu you had no way of knowing if it contained gluten or not. Anyone who must avoid gluten knows it's not as simple as just avoiding bread or foods that might contain flour. Gluten is also hidden in many sauces and condiments that you wouldn't ordinarily suspect. Thankfully, many restaurants now label dishes as 'gluten-free' by placing a 'GF' symbol next to them on the menu. Sadly this is not as common for dairy foods which also trouble a lot of people and like gluten, can be hidden in foods you wouldn't suspect.
3. Lack of Choice - Menu labelling is of course a great help for those with dietary restrictions but then the problem is often lack of choice as only a few things on the menu are actually labelled GF!
I have now become a big fan of mediterranean food as it is based on meat, fish and vegetables and it is easy to avoid the bread and cheese dishes. As an added bonus the mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world!
A Few Tips
These are quite obvious but many people may not want to make a fuss. First if you're not sure if something on the menu contains a food you need to avoid then ask the waiter/waitress. If there is a dish that would be fine apart from a specific ingredient then ask if it can be made without it for you. Many restaurants are happy to oblige. This may be something as simple as ordering a dish without the sauce or dressing it usually comes with. Remember you are the customer and are paying to have an enjoyable (and symptom-free) time so make sure you are getting food that is safe and then you can enjoy your meal without worrying about potential consequences!
Do you have a restricted diet due to coeliac disease or food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance? What are your experiences of eating in restaurants? Let us know below!
Those in the UK may wish to visit The Restaurant website.