July 13, 2021

How To Travel When You’re Gluten-Free With Lynn Smargis

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The following material has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Kim Shea had the opportunity of speaking with Lynn Smargis, host of the Travel Gluten Free Podcast and author of the book, The Guide to Traveling Gluten Free. They discussed the difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease, tips for traveling when you’re gluten-free, the best gluten-free destinations and restaurants, and how to live your best life when you’re gluten-free.

Lynn Smargis: The Gluten-Free Mother & Traveler

Kim: Do you have gluten-free issues yourself or is it just your passion?

Lynn: I'm celiac, my younger daughter is celiac, but my older daughter is not and hopefully she'll stay that way. You can actually become celiac at any point in your life, but hopefully, my older daughter will miss it. When my daughter and I travel, we both have to be really careful about making sure that we don't get gluten in our diet.

Kim: I was just making Play-Doh for a birthday party tomorrow and I saw they have gluten-free recipes for Play-Doh. Does it affect you if you even touch it or anything like that?

Lynn: Yeah, actually the hair color that my former hairdresser used apparently had gluten in it. Every time she would color my hair, my scalp would burn and itch for days. Then, I realized it has to be the hair color she's using. Sometimes when I go to the hair salon, I'll just bring my own shampoo and conditioner, then I know the one I have is gluten-free. It's in all sorts of cosmetics and stuff. I have to be really careful that what I buy is gluten-free, even if I'm putting it on my skin because it'll definitely bother me.

Kim: Wow. I had no idea. This is going to be really helpful for those of us who aren't gluten-free or who are traveling with people who are gluten-free. Tell me a little bit more about your background, where you come from, and how you got into doing a podcast.

Lynn: I've always been into alternative modes of health. I do use regular doctors, but, especially since my kids were little, we'd always try alternative stuff first. I've always been into acupuncture and massage therapy and trying to heal naturally before we jumped into the regular doctor stuff.

My career wasn't in alternative health, although I did have a health food store years ago. I was a teacher for many years, and I taught science and coding. But then, I found out six years ago I couldn't eat gluten. I love to travel and I realized it was really, really hard to travel, not eating gluten because it's in everything. When I realized I was gluten-free, I started looking around on the internet for resources on how to travel gluten-free and nobody really told you how to travel. There were a bunch of articles on these restaurants in Chicago or some gluten-free bakeries in New York City, but it's like, “Well, if I’m not going to these places, it doesn't tell me how to be gluten-free.” That's why I decided to do my podcast: to teach people the types of questions you want to ask restaurants and what tools are useful to find safe, gluten-free restaurants when you're out.

Plus, a lot what a lot of people don't realize is when you have celiac disease, it's much different than just being gluten intolerant. Gluten intolerance means you eat gluten and it doesn't sit well with you. But with celiac, it's an autoimmune disease. That means if you eat any amount of gluten, even if it's a bite of something, your body ends up attacking itself and you end up being very, very sick anywhere from three to seven days. It can easily wipe out a vacation, which is the last place you want to be sick.

If I go to a restaurant and the chef in the back uses a knife to cut regular bread and he uses that same knife to cut my bread, I can get sick. So, the cross-contamination factor is really high. There are a lot of different levels to being gluten-free. Having celiac disease is one of the ones where you have to be really careful. I'm very strict about eating out especially, but just my diet in general.

Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Intolerance: What It Is & How To Manage It

Kim: How do you know whether you have celiac disease or just a gluten intolerance? Is there a test for it?

Lynn: Yeah, so there's actually a really simple blood test that you can get for it. If you're doing the blood test, you have to be eating gluten at the time, so it can detect if you have celiac disease. If you test positive on the blood test, then you have an endoscopy where they basically put a scope down your throat and they look at your small intestine. There are little hairs in your small intestine called villi that absorb your vitamins and minerals. With celiac disease, your body attacks the small intestine and these little villi that absorb nutrients.

One of the very common symptoms of celiac disease is being malnourished or underweight because when you're eating gluten, you're killing all the villi that absorb your nutrients in your small intestine. You basically have no way to absorb nutrients and you just start being malnourished, even if you're eating. There are lots of digestive symptoms, like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation.

There are symptoms like memory fog or depression. If you have a mental health issue and you are celiac but you don't know it, eating gluten can make your mental health condition worse, because a lot of your neural tissue is found in your digestive tract. I suffer from depression, so I know if I'm eating really bad, my depression can get worse because the digestive system is so connected to mood and mental health. So, if you eat really healthy and are careful with what you eat, you can resolve a lot of different mental health things.

Kim: Okay. That's interesting. So, if you damage it and are not eating properly, because you don't know that you have celiac disease and you're killing off the villi, when you change your diet, do those come back? Is there a way to turn that around?

Lynn: Because there's no “cure” for celiac disease, you need to be really strict about your diet. What happens is people will be diagnosed with celiac disease, and they're like, “Oh, I have a cheat day once a week.”

Well, if you have a cheat day once a week, every time you cheat, it compounds and it takes weeks for your body to recover from that one cheat thing—even if it's a piece of regular bread. You can't have cheat days. You have to be completely gluten-free, because every time you eat, even it gets cross-contaminated with gluten, you can have very serious, repercussive side effects that last for weeks. As you probably know, if you keep damaging your organ over and over again, that sets you up for cancer.

Actually, my dad was never diagnosed with celiac disease. Nobody tested for celiac disease back in the 80s, but I’m 99% sure he had it, because he was textbook celiac. He passed away from adenocarcinoma, which is small intestinal cancer. That's the cancer that you get if you have celiac disease and you don't modify your diet.

There’s also a huge genetic component to it. My daughter has it and I have it, so we had to get it passed from somebody. I can tell you from firsthand experience taking care of him, adenocarcinoma is definitely not something you want to pass away from. The small intestine was just inundated with tumors to the point where he could not absorb anything. They gave him six months to live. He lived for three years, but he literally starved to death for the last three years of his life. So, if you have celiac disease, you definitely need to stick to your diet because that is one of the outcomes.

One of the reasons why I travel gluten-free is because it's so easy to cheat, right? It’s so easy to want that regular croissant and eat it. What people don't realize is how much damage you're really doing to your body and you don't see it, because it's on the inside. But you can really set yourself up for some dangerous, life-threatening diseases, if you have celiac disease and you don't follow your diet. I feel like by doing my podcasts and telling people how you can still live your life and be gluten-free, it'll be easier for other people to stick to their diet so they won't be sick.

Kim: I would think it would be a problem where you've got family, especially if you're traveling and you're in someplace where there's some wonderful specialty, and they want you to try it. I'm sure it's hard when you're fighting that.

Lynn: I've heard stories from both sides. My husband is very supportive in making sure that he makes stuff that’s gluten-free. When we go out to eat, I'll tell them I’m gluten-free, but sometimes I'll forget to ask specific questions and my husband will remember. I'm really lucky, because apparently not everybody's family is very on board with a gluten-free diet, which is really sad. You wouldn't feed a Snickers bar to a diabetic. Well, why would you ask a celiac person to eat gluten? It's the same thing. You're asking them to throw their health under the bus. I'm really fortunate because in our family, everybody's really supportive, but I know that there are people whose families aren’t as supportive of their diet, even though it's for a medical reason. It’s not for a fad.

Kim: Is that what you're finding? That some of the pushback they're getting is from the perception that this is just a fad?

Lynn: Yeah, I mentioned that in my book, The Guide to Traveling Gluten Free. Before I order out at a restaurant, I tell them it's not optional for me, it's medical. I tell them I have a gluten allergy, even though celiac disease isn't really an allergy. People don't always understand celiac disease, so I just tell them I have a gluten allergy and I tell them I do it for medical reasons. One time, I was in Canada and the server at the restaurant was like, “Someone told me they were gluten-free, and then they ate the croutons on their salad. They were obviously not really gluten-free.”

Kim: So, doing what you do where you're really taking precautions, do you find that you have total relief?

Lynn: I actually don't. I just got a test done that said that even though I don't eat gluten at all, I'm getting gluten from somewhere. I'm not sure if it's when I'm going out to eat, or if it's from a surface in the house. My husband's not gluten-free. He can eat everything, so we do have gluten in our house. Now, I'm extra careful about wiping off the counters and stuff like that, because I'm trying to figure out where the source of gluten is. I'm ingesting it from somewhere. But, as far as when I eat, I definitely do not eat any gluten because it just makes me be to where I can't work. I can't do anything. I'm just in bed.

Gluten-Free Travel Tips

Kim: When you go on vacation, you really have very little control. Tell us some tips. How do you go about traveling and making sure that you're safe?

Lynn: Well, if you're traveling and you're gluten-free or if you have any special diet, one of the things I always tell people, especially if you're flying, you want to bring snacks and food with you, because all airlines are different as far as specialty diets. I fly Delta a lot and I know Delta will do gluten-free or dairy-free snacks, but they can't do both. If you have more than one dietary restriction, you want to bring food with you, especially if it's a flight and you know you're going to need to eat. Gluten-free airport food is really hard to find, although I do know at Gate 17 in the Salt Lake City Airport, where I live, there's a Jersey Mike's. Jersey Mike’s has a whole gluten-free protocol and gluten-free subs, which I can eat.

In my book, I tell people how you should pack your food when you're flying, because there's a specific way you want to pack it, so you hopefully won't get tagged by TSA. I still get tagged by TSA pretty often. You want carry your food with you and you want to make sure that you have special apps. There's an app that's called Find Me Gluten Free. There's a free version and a paid version. I have the paid version because I travel a lot. There are certain tools you want to use to make sure that you keep yourself safe.

Sometimes, we'll stop at a place that just has regular food where my husband will eat. I'll bring my food in and then I'll eat with him at the table. Even before COVID, I would always carry liquid hand sanitizer in a little two-ounce spray bottle, so it would go through TSA. Before I will sit down at the table, I spray liquid hand sanitizer on the table and wipe it off, then spray the bench and wipe it off. This is not because of germs, but because of gluten. Someone who ate there may have left crumbs of gluten on the table, then I might accidentally pick one of those crumbs up from a napkin when I’m eating and ingest it by accident.

Wiping down your table and your chair before you eat is really important. Knowing what restaurants and what types of ethnic foods are naturally gluten-free is important. Indian food is mostly gluten-free. Thai is mostly gluten-free. But then there are foods, like German food, which is usually not gluten-free. You want to avoid German places when you're going out to eat.

Also, I love to drink protein drinks. If you're going on a red-eye, a lot of times when you get to the location, it's breakfast time. But a lot of the places aren't open and the places that are open have bagels and pastries, so you can't trust to eat there, even if they might have a gluten-free option because there's so much gluten in their kitchen. What I like to do is just carry a protein powder, put water in my shaker bottle, put the protein on top, and then shake it up for a healthy breakfast.

Kim: Do you pack all your toiletries that you bring with you on a trip?

Lynn: I pack all my toiletries. Except when we go to Disney. The past couple of times I've been to Disney I've used their shampoo and conditioner and it didn't bother my skin. But a lot of times, hotels don't have the ingredients listed because they're the sample sizes. My husband will use that stuff or whoever I'm with can use that, but I use my own toiletries. I buy a lot of my stuff from a place called Lemongrass Spa and their entire line is gluten-free. It's nice because then I can just go on the site and order anything. When I travel, I bring all my own cosmetics and everything with me.

Kim: What do you do about your hotel room or if you're on a cruise? I mean, I'm sure now it's better because we're coming out of COVID and all these places have to be cleaned to the nth degree, but what do you have to do?

Lynn: As far as the accommodations go, I like to pick a place that has a mini kitchen or something so that I can at least heat up stuff in the microwave and be able to eat my own food.

What I'll do typically is I'll wipe things down and then make sure everything is wrapped before it's in the refrigerator or whatever. As you said, with COVID, people have been cleaning more, so I haven't had to worry about it as much, which is nice. It’s really great to get a place that already has a kitchen in it. I'll wash out the pans and stuff just to make sure that they're clean.

With a cruise, actually, it sounds like the opposite of what you would expect, but cruises are one of the best things to do if you are gluten-free. The reason is because cruises are very service-oriented and they want you to remember a spectacular time on their cruise. Because they're so service-oriented, if you have any kind of food or dietary requirements, they're really good. We do Princess Cruises a lot. They have their own separate gluten-free kitchen, and they make their own gluten-free bread, which is big, fluffy bread and it's such a treat to have.

Cruises are really great because a lot of cruise lines will bring you the menu the night before. They show you what they're going to have the next day and you pick out what you want and a lot of times they can modify things to make them gluten-free. I talk about this in my book. If you're going on a cruise, you want to go to the same restaurant every night because the maître d’ there will remember that you're gluten-free, so there's less chance of them messing up your food.

I have never gotten sick on a cruise and I've done several of them. We cruise through Princess a lot. I've done their kitchen tour, so I've seen their gluten-free space and everything and I really trust the safety of their food. I've done other ones like Norwegian and Holland America. But the other thing I love about Princess too is they have these really great desserts and they have a lot of gluten-free desserts.

If you haven't gone on a cruise before, you're basically eating almost the whole time. It's actually pretty cool. If you go on a cruise, you can get up in the morning, eat breakfast, take a couple of snacks with you for the afternoon, then come back and eat dinner. You don't really have to worry about where you are going to get food. If you're at a port and you're not sure of the food, you bring a snack or two with you and just use them to hold yourself over. Cruises are actually one of the best ways to travel, especially if you're new to being celiac or new to having a specialty food diet.

The Top Gluten-Free Cities & Restaurants

Lynn: When you're traveling and looking at the restaurants that are in a city, you're going to see what restaurants are going to be safe for you to eat at and what are not. One of the things I also talk about in my book is if you can find a dedicated gluten-free restaurant, which means there's no gluten in the restaurant whatsoever, then that's your best bet when you're traveling. You will know you're not going to get sick because there's no gluten there. Finding dedicated gluten-free places is really easy.

Also, there are some cities that are more gluten-free friendly than others. Going to gluten-free friendly cities is always a better bet if you have celiac disease than going to another city that might not have so much to offer to you

I list these cities in my book. One of the gluten-free friendly cities that I've been to is Victoria, Canada. If you love fried food like I do but have celiac disease, you can't eat anything if it’s not in a dedicated fryer. A dedicated fryer means there's no gluten in that fryer. A lot of places don't have that. When you find a place with a dedicated fryer, it's really exciting because as a celiac, you get to eat fried food. When I was in Victoria, I had fried food every day. I think I gained five pounds, but it was such a treat.

I haven't been yet, but if you're gluten-free, Chicago is a great place with tons of gluten-free options.

Actually, Sedona, Arizona, has the most amazing restaurant I just found. It's called Picazzo's. It's all Italian food. Everything on their menu is gluten-free and then they also make regular pizza. It’s kind of a flip, where most of the menu is gluten-free and only a few options aren’t. I got tiramisu and ravioli and cannellini and things I hadn't eaten at a restaurant in six years. That was amazing.

Austin, Texas, is a really great place to eat if you're gluten-free. There's a place called Max's Wine Dive in Austin that has the most amazing gluten-free fried chicken ever.

Philadelphia is a great place to go. There are a couple places there, like Fox and Son in the Reading Terminal Market. They have gluten-free fried corn dogs, fried Oreos, and funnel cake. It's the only place I know I can get a funnel cake.

There are a lot of places in California, because California is really progressive as far as food and stuff.

One of my favorite tips for travel is this: if you are on Instagram or if you're not, you can actually just use hashtags to search on Google, and you're traveling to Austin, Texas, for example, if you look for #glutenfreeaustin or gluten-free and whatever city you're going to, you'll find every social media post that is tagged with that hashtag. That's a great way to find local places that might be really close to where you are traveling.

Use hashtags a lot. That's one of my favorite things to do. It's also really fun because you get to discover new places and new food.

The Top Gluten-Free International Travel Destinations

Kim: What about international travel? Are there countries where it's harder?

Lynn: For sure. This is going to sound completely strange, but Italy is one of the best places to go. You would think that is the last place you want to go, but Italy has the highest per capita of celiac disease in the world. Italy is a really great place to get gluten-free food.

France—no. I remember I went to a maître d’ and I told him I couldn't eat gluten and he's like, “Go to another restaurant.” So, when I was in France, I basically just picked naturally gluten-free things from the menu all week, but there were no guarantees. There was a lot of cross-contamination. My joints were hurting me the whole week.

London has the most amazing gluten-free chains. Wagamama is one and there are a couple of other places I have in my book. London is amazing if you have celiac disease or if you're vegetarian or vegan.

Germany—no. There's so much pizza in Germany. Germany and Austria are no’s, but if you're in Vienna, you're okay. Outside of Vienna, it's really hard to get safe, gluten-free food.

Mexico was actually really good about being gluten-free because Mexican food isn't generally high in gluten. A lot of people in Mexico speak English, so it was pretty easy to get safe food in Mexico.

I mentioned Canada. Victoria and Montreal are really great for gluten-free food. I believe Toronto is really good, as well. Canada has quite a few cities and the general rule of thumb that I tell people in my book is that the closer you are to a big urban city, the more chance you have of finding safe food that's gluten-free.

For example, I live in Utah and if you travel to any of the national parks in Utah, you're in the middle of nowhere. The chances of you getting safe, gluten-free food are pretty much slim to none, which is why anytime I take a trip in Utah, I always pack food with me. When you're trying to find gluten-free food, the closer you are to a densely populated city, the better chance you have of finding safe food.

Kim: That's good to know. I'm not much of a traveler. Nothing compared to you, that's for sure. I know when I graduated from high school, my dad took me to Ireland and he had multiple sclerosis. That was rough. They were not prepared there for disabilities at all. It was completely inaccessible.

I mean I can just imagine for you or for anybody with celiac, you're trying to go around and have a good time. It’s just such a drain to go on a trip and have it not go well because of a health issue. It can really just take all the fun out of traveling.

Lynn: One of the things you really have to be prepared for on a trip is a lot of people associate travel with good food. Pretty much, they go hand in hand, but I always just go in there not expecting to find gluten-free food. Then, when I do, I'm really excited. So, if you have some disease or you're on a specialty diet, not having high expectations of finding amazing food is just a really good mindset to have. Unless you go on a cruise, you're just setting yourself up for so much disappointment and your vacation experience isn't going to be as good.

There have been times where we've had to eat at a fast-food place and I bring my food and my husband just orders fast-food. I'm okay with that. You can't have celiac disease and then be like, “Well, you can't eat gluten too.” I know my husband feels bad and sometimes other people, like my friends, are like, “Oh, I'm sorry, I'm eating this.”

It doesn't really bother me. I can get gluten-free desserts at home or at different restaurants I know of. It’s not like I can't get gluten-free desserts. It's just that it's harder for me to get them. But I mean, I've had it for six years now. I know what to expect and what not to expect.

Gluten-Free Shopping & Baking: How To Know If It’s Really Gluten-Free

Kim: Do you bake for yourself so that you can have desserts at home?

Lynn: I actually was a huge baker before I was gluten-free. I'm still a huge baker. It's just now I have 13 different kinds of flour in my pantry, so anywhere from my tiger nut flour to rice flour to tapioca flour to potato flour. There are so many different kinds of gluten-free flour you can use. It's incredible. Because it doesn't have the stickiness from gluten, you have to put guar gum or a different additive in it, so it'll stay together. You can use eggs to make it rise, because it also doesn't rise the same. In addition to all of that, I live at 7,000 feet, so the altitude is also an issue and things dry out really easy, because we live in a semi-arid climate.

The flours are definitely more expensive because they're not mass-produced like wheat is. They actually give you a bigger taste profile. You get different experiences with tastes and textures when you expand from gluten-free flours and go into the gluten-free stuff. There are challenges when we're baking and things don't always come out good. One of the things I've learned recently is to do a test cookie or a test thing to see how it rises and make sure it works, because the chemistry with gluten-free food is definitely a little more challenging. But, some of the desserts are really great. I've made a lot of desserts and had people over who were not gluten-free and they said, “If you didn't tell me this is gluten-free, I would have no idea.”

Gluten-free food typically has a connotation of not tasting good. But, one of the things I notice is that restaurants that specialize in gluten-free foods generally have chefs who are more experienced in cooking, so they make better food. If you go to a restaurant that does specialize in being gluten-free, chances are you're going to get a really, really good meal. You have to be good to know how to not cook with gluten.

There are also different gluten-free desserts out there you can buy. There is a difference between “certified gluten-free” and “gluten-free.” Certified gluten-free means it’s safe for celiacs to eat. If it just says “gluten-free,” I always read the ingredients anyway, because sometimes you'll get a product that says “gluten-free” and on the back, it says it has wheat in it.

Kim: You said you look at the labels, which I guess a lot of celiac people do, but on cosmetics and things like that, what are you looking for there? How do you know if the products that you're using? I mean, it's not in toothpaste, is it?

Lynn:  You can find gluten in toothpaste too. Actually, one of my other gluten-free influencer friends, Taryn, when she found out she was celiac and went gluten-free, she was still getting symptoms and she couldn’t figure out what it was. Then, she read the ingredients on her toothpaste. There was wheat in her toothpaste.

Wheat is used as a filler and a thickener for so many things, so the dangerous part of eating out or eating gluten-free is if you order a steak, you can't trust that that steak is gluten-free because if the marinade they used has gluten in it or if the sauce they put on it has gluten in it, you can get sick. You can't ever assume that anything is gluten-free unless it's a banana that you pick up in the produce stand or something like that. You just have to be really careful with reading ingredients.

One of the ingredients that's really common and has made a comeback is beer. My mom would comb beer through my hair because beer had barley in it and barley has B vitamins and B vitamins are good for your hair. Now, there's this whole comeback with beer-themed cosmetics. All of those are off the table if you have celiac disease, because barley has gluten in it.  

Wheat germ is another common thing that they put in some cosmetics, because wheat germ has B vitamins which are supposed to be good for you.

Maltodextrin is another one. If maltodextrin is in a cosmetic and it doesn't specifically say, “maltodextrin from corn or potato,” I don't get it because maltodextrin can be made from wheat. Those things are the most common things you'll see in different cosmetics that are a big no-no if you have celiac disease.

The Gluten-Free Travel Podcast & Book

Kim: You know so much so you can help people. Who do you have on your podcast usually? Or are you just talking yourself?

Lynn: I do a combination of episodes on my podcast. Some of them are just me talking about fun things to do in Moab, because it’s one of my favorite places. I only live four hours from it, so it's really nice. Some of them are interviewing people about travel. I just interviewed John Biethan about Albuquerque, New Mexico. I also have other guests on. I had Matt from Gluten-free Street Gang on a while back. I had Gluten-free Dave. Coral from Gluten-free with Coral. They come on and talk about their experiences, the places they like to visit, and their favorite restaurants, either where they live or when they travel.

Kim: Wow. So, you also wrote a book. How long did that take?

Lynn: That's kind of a two-part story, but I started writing it on this one software that I was using, but it had a really big learning curve. So, I put it down and picked it back up again, but basically writing the whole book probably took me about four months. Because I'm a content writer, I have a really easy time coming up with ideas and stories and just writing. I never sit down at the computer and not have an idea. For me, it was actually really fun. I loved it a lot. Probably the worst part was just figuring out the process of publishing and book marketing and all that stuff.

In the book, I go through all of the things that I've learned from traveling and being gluten-free and the best tips I feel would help people to navigate it safely. A lot of times it's really common for people with celiac disease or people who have dietary issues to have food anxiety, because you're sitting there eating that food wondering, “Is it going to make me sick?” There’s a whole emotional aspect of it, which I talk about at the beginning of my book.

If you have any kind of gluten issues or just a dietary specialty, my book will definitely help you with planning ahead and preparing and giving you really good tools to make your vacation so much better.

Kim: Where can we find your book?

Lynn: So, if you go to TravelGlutenFreePodcast.com and you go to the book tab, it'll be right there. You can also find it on Amazon, or you can also find information on my Instagram, @TravelGlutenFreePodcast.

Interview Links

Check out Lynn Smargis’ website here.

Get Lynn’s book here or on Amazon.

Send Lynn a message.

Friend with Lynn on Facebook.

Connect with Lynn on LinkedIn.

Follow Lynn on Instagram.


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