How to survive college with celiac disease

Celiacs at College


I just finished a study abroad program called Semester at Sea in which I travelled around the world on a cruise ship and put into port in more than 10 countries/regions. It was THE trip of a lifetime and I gained invaluable experience eating gluten-free in multiple countries as well as on board. I'd like to pass on these experiences in case some of you take on the challenge of studying abroad. While I'll go through every country below I'll first advertise my program, Semester at Sea, as the ideal study abroad for celiacs.

          Semester At Sea

Usually when you study abroad you only have the option of eating the local food and, in some cases, that is more than a challenge for celiacs. To survive in many places around the world, you'd need a kitchen available. Semester at Sea provides another option. The ship acts as a home base. The dining hall aboard the ship is extremely accomodating. Every morning I'd meet with the head waiter to determine how to tweek the menu and make it gluten-free. I also brought frozen gluten-free food onboard and they made me pizza, pasta, pancakes, and other things. When you're in port, (usually for 5 or so days at a time) you always have a safe place to eat (in case there are few local options). You can eat breakfast on the ship, find something (even just snacks) locally, and then come back to eat a big dinner. Over time, you figure out your own routine like always bringing Chex cereal and gluten-free snack bars with you in case of hunger cravings. Honestly, Semester at Sea went better than I thought any semester abroad could, and I ended up gaining weight! Please contact me for advice if you're considering SAS yourself and need any questions answered.



Finding gluten-free options in Hilo and Honolulu was like searching for them in any US city. There were some Outbacks and hotel restaurants which featured gluten-free choices. The first day, I ate typical breakfast fare at a local Hawaiian restaurant. Most Hawaiian food like Loco Moco is usually not gluten-free, though poi (a paste which is a staple there) is. Unfortunately most foreigners aren't too fond of it and it didn't look too appetizing. I ate at the Polynesian Cultural Center with no problem but in general Hawaii didn't feature many exciting options for a traveling celiac student.



I've traveled to Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Kyoto, and Nara and let me tell you Japan is beautiful but definitely not a celiac-friendly country. They use soy sauce in almost everything and noodles are their fast food. So on to what you CAN eat. There's one sort of rice balls that have no soy sauce additives that can be found at the popular grocery store Lawson's (check the ingredients). Shabu-shabu is a hot pot where you cook plain meat and vegetables yourself. It's delicious and gluten-free but watch out for the sauces that come separately. Sushi is usually fine and when I was stuck finding lunch in a small village, I ordered two plates of cucumber rolls without soy sauce. If you want to take a small chance, ask for plain rice, chicken, and vegetables with salt as a seasoning and hope the waiter understands. When I was in Kyoto I had a tour guide so she managed to order me something like this at every meal. Overall though if you're going to Japan, try to have a kitchen available because you won't be able to survive eating out for every meal. 



Unfortunately, China is just as devoted to soy sauce as Japan and it's just as hard to eat there. I  traveled to Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou, and Shanghai a few years ago, and I went to Shanghai and Hong Kong this past semester. Even with a tour guide the first time around, you're going to be eating a lot of plain food like rice and vegetables. Be very prepared if you're going to be in China for an extended period of time (load up on snacks). Celiac disease and gluten intolerances are relatively unknown so eating out isn't easily done. Hong Kong is a little better since it features many international restaurants, has more english spoken, and there's some health food stores if you look for them.



Like the previous Asian countries, Vietnam mostly features food with soy sauce. However Vietnamese beef soup called Pho and a predominantly rice based society (as opposed to wheat) makes it doable. Pho is a traditional Vietnamese soup which can be found everywhere and it's gluten-free. However, if you're staying in Vietnam for an extended period of time, try getting a kitchen or staying at a resort. That way you can communicate better and ensure the sauces and other ingredients are wheat and gluten free.



Indian food is generally gluten-free friendly, more so in the south (rice based) than the north (wheat based). However, I'd still check with a chef or waiter. A piece of advice is to memorize a few of the classic dishes you can eat and stick with those when you eat out. Dosa's, or Indian crepes, are very popular and supposedly gluten-free. However, be cautious. I once became extremely ill by eating them so perhaps they weren't using the usual gluten-free ingredient of chickpea flour. Otherwise, India is a good choice for a celiac if you enjoy Indian food.



Mauritius is an island to the east of Africa. You won't find much gluten-free food there but there's a good amount of western food so you can easily shop at the grocery store. Sadly, I only stayed in Mauritius for two days so I'm not an authority on eating there.


South Africa

I stayed in Cape Town and let me tell you, it is the perfect place for celiacs. There's a lot of European influence there. I went to a few different health food stores and found that the Wellness Warehouse in downtown Cape Town was the best. I also found a number of restaurants which served gluten-free food including pizza places and Harrie's Pancakes, which serves gluten-free pancakes. At the Waterfront, a popular attraction site, I found a pizza place and a restaurant called the Green Dolphin, which is a jazz club. When I went there I was worried about eating but the waiter knew exactly what gluten was and brought me an altered non-breaded chicken salad with a balsamic vinegar dressing. It's SO refreshing when gluten is well-known where you're traveling. In case you're considering a safari, I went to Durban on the Hlehlewe-Umfolozi safari and had a great time. I called ahead a week before going to inform the owners that I was a celiac. The safari ended up being a small rustic operation and the wife of the owner said she has a celiac come every 5 groups or so. She had gluten-free english muffins when I arrived and she packed me a gluten-free picnic lunch for the main safari day. She also cooked most things gluten-free at the lodge and made me a gluten-free apple cobbler which was delicious. :) South Africa is definitely a good place for food allergies.



Unlike South Africa, Ghana was a lot more challenging for food allergies. I mostly stayed around Accra and it's difficult enough just finding food that looks like it won't make a tourist sick. I ordered a salad at one place and chanced a honey-mustard dressing. Then I went on a village immersion and had to eat the fries, rice, and chicken that was available. Honestly, I resorted to pre-emptive Digest Gold pills which are supposed to minimize gluten reactions. Seemed to work well.



I stayed in Salvador and Rio. In Salvador, I mostly ate on the ship and managed to find the usual snacks in port. In Rio, I ate breakfast in the hotel. I also found an Outback which has a gluten-free menu. Concerning local cuisine, I did have dinner at a formal Brazilian barbeque restaurant. I asked the head waiter and he said all the meat was gluten-free and I felt fine after the great meal. There isn't a general knowledge of gluten in the population of Brazil, however gluten is labeled on everything. Tip: Keep in mind the sad fact that pretty much all Brazilian chocolate contains gluten. :(


 Study abroad again! This summer through Boston University in Geneva, Switzerland, and London, England. I spent 4 weeks in each place and did a brief 4 day trip to Prague in between. Here’s a brief summary of how celiac-friendly these places are and I’ll put up specific restaurant reviews in the new Traveling Abroad section.



Overall, shopping in Geneva was fine and eating out was unexpectedly horrible. At the main grocery stores there’s some gluten free products, and I found some good packaged gluten-free bread and croissants at the Migros Supermarket near me. There’s also Urban Bio health food stores in the downtown area, and they carry a pretty wide selection of pasta, bread, sweets, and other staples you’ll need in your kitchen. The Urban Bio store near me was called Marché de Vie and they had freshly made, yummy tarts and some freshly baked bread a few times a week. The owner can speak fluent english and he would tell me the best times to come into the store to ensure the bread would be in stock. If you have a kitchen in Geneva, cooking is no problem as long as you anticipate not being able to read ingredient lists which are all in German, French, and Italian, but not English. 

Now eating out- horrible. I can honestly say there is not one restaurant in Geneva that makes it easy for celiacs. I became excited about one restaurant, La Crêperie des Paquis, since a side note on their website menu says that the crepes they make are gluten-free. The first time I ate there I was fine and enjoyed a banana/nutella crepe, but the second time I opted for an apple/cinnamon crepe which looked a bit different. That night I had an absolutely horrible gluten reaction and resolved never to go back. I suppose the lesson is, no matter what the website says, if the waitress doesn’t know what gluten is, don’t eat there. Though, one thing you should try at least once if you travel to Switzerland is the cheese fondue. I know what you’re thinking- cheese fondue for celiacs? But if you order potatoes on the side instead of bread, and make sure you have your own fondue pot, everything should be gluten-free and it’s a nice authentic Swiss eating experience. 



Now, I was only in Prague for four days but I did some research into how easy it is to eat gluten-free there. I basically concluded that not too many people are familiar with celiacs in Prague and there is a general lack of easy access to gluten free products. But, weirdly enough, I found two really amazing gluten-free restaurants, one near the downtown area, and one a subway stop away. I ate at both and I’ll put the links to them on the Traveling Abroad section. In general, I’d say that it’s at least possible to eat well in Prague for a few days, though you may end up snacking all day and ending with a large dinner. 



Rather like New York City, London has a wide variety of gluten-free products and many eating-out opportunities. Every major grocery chain will have at least a small gluten-free section. I shopped at Waitrose and Sainsbury’s both of which had locations near me in South Kensington and they both provided gluten-free bread, pasta, cookies, soy sauce, etc. I didn’t live near a large Tesco’s, but apparently they carry the super popular gluten-free bread, Genius. I managed to try it later on in my visit, and I think it even beats out Udi’s bread. Also helpful, most products I found were labeled Gluten Free on the container, so there’s no guessing games over ingredient lists. Eating out was pretty easy as long as I researched where I could eat beforehand. Keep in mind many of the restaurants I found offering gluten-free options were vegan/vegetarian places, which may or may not be your cup of tea. Overall, London was relatively gluten-free friendly, although research is needed and you still can’t go down the street and pick up something to go.




We spent 1 night in Bristol, a city that straddles England/Wales and ate in Cabot Circus, a downtown mall that is really something to see. Multi leveled with at least 20 restaurants to choose from, we chose La Tasca. If you visit, try to do it on off peak times so that additional attention can be given to gluten free requirements. As in the rest of the UK, knowledge of gluten free diners is relatively higher than in the U.S.

Moscow, Russia

This entry is provided by my father who visited the Baltic states before coming to England and meeting up with me. My parents were on a cruise so most meals were on the ship. They did a special flight to Moscow however to see Red Square, the Kremlin etc so did have the opportunity  to eat in Moscow. Their dinner was at Central House of Writers in old Moscow (50 Povarskaya ul. Bolshaya) a beautiful old mansion supposedly used by Tolstoy as the description of the Rostov home in War and Peace. Surprisingly the staff understood the gluten allergy and reviewed with the chef. My father (who is also celiac) got a gluten free version of their Beef Stroganoff and he thought is was possibly the best he’s ever had (gluten or no gluten). All the other courses were substituted with little fuss and made for a memorable experience.

For those of you wanting to know a bit more about cruising gluten free, rest assured that most cruise lines are now very aware of gluten allergies and their wait staff and chefs generally go out of their way to make your dining experience as memorable as everyone else. I can assure you this will be the least challenging part of your trip - make sure you give the cruise line advance notice of your allergy and most will plan accordingly. For example, on the Baltic trip my parents sailed with Silversea, they told me that the ship was well stocked with gluten free bread, pasta and other staples (don’t expect fresh breads however). All menus were marked for him on what was gluten free and what could be adjusted to make it gluten free. Silversea is a smaller ship so that definitely helps as there are fewer diners and more attention on dealing with your allergy. Care, as always, should be taken at the Buffets (cross contamination is a real challenge here).