Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 10 2015

Managing Food Allergies & Dietary Restrictions While On the Road and Away From Home

Heidi Edinger Smith, CMP, Certified Health Coach


I have been a professional in the meetings industry for about 25 years. Over the years, I’ve been diagnosed with a couple of different auto-immune diseases and several food allergies that have made traveling and attending meetings and conventions away from home a bit of a challenge.

I have tried to find ways to manage my dietary restrictions so that I can travel and attend events away from home without being worried that either I won’t find anything to eat or that what I have available to eat will make me sick. Neither of those options is much fun, so I have put together some information to help you navigate how to manage food allergies and dietary restrictions while you are on the road.

First of all, let’s start out by clarifying that some people have dietary restrictions because of an auto-immune disorder or disease. Some have restrictions due to a food allergy or intolerance. Others may have dietary restrictions due to medical conditions that are temporary or chronic, and others still may watch what they eat because they choose to follow a certain kind of diet.

Let’s begin with understanding autoimmune diseases. An autoimmune disease is a disease that occurs when the body produces an inappropriate immune response against its own tissues. There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases and these are some of the most common:

  • Grave’s Disease
  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
  • Lupus
  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Celiac Disease
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
You might recognize these as conditions that you, someone in your family, or someone you work with might have. In any case, the frequency of autoimmune diseases have become more prevalent in recent history.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that more than 23.5 million Americans have an auto-immune disease and that the number is rising. That means that there is a very good chance that you might come across someone with one of these diseases within your lifetime, and very often, they will have special dietary needs to help keep their condition in check!

Now let’s look at the difference between a food allergy and an intolerance. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is a very definite difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance. Both can be problematic, depending on the severity on a person’s reaction.

Physical reactions to certain foods are common, and many are caused by a food intolerance rather than an allergy. A food intolerance can cause some of the same signs and symptoms as a food allergy, such as digestive problems, so people might not recognize the difference between them. If you have a food intolerance, you might be able to eat small amounts of the culprit food without trouble and you might also be able to prevent a reaction. For example, if you have lactose intolerance, you might be able to drink lactose-free milk or take lactase enzyme pills (Lactaid) to aid digestion without having any digestive issues.

Causes of food intolerance include:

  • Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food. Lactose intolerance is a common example.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can cause cramping, constipation and diarrhea.
  • Food poisoning. Toxins, such as bacteria, in spoiled food can cause severe digestive symptoms.
  • Sensitivity to food additives. For example, sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people.
  • Recurring stress or psychological factors. Sometimes the mere thought of a food might make you sick. The reason is not fully understood.
Gluten Intolerance. Symptoms are mostly gastrointestinal, and people with a gluten intolerance will often experience stomach cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and nausea after eating foods that contain gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is hidden in many processed foods and can be found in pasta, bread, cereal, beer, and soy sauce, to name just a few.

If you have a food intolerance, your doctor may recommend steps to aid digestion of certain foods or to treat the underlying condition causing your reaction. If you have a reaction after eating a particular food, see your doctor to determine whether you have a food intolerance or a food allergy. Your doctor may recommend an elimination diet for a few weeks to determine the exact cause of your discomfort.

A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms from the less serious ones, like digestive problems, to the more severe and even life-threatening reactions.

If you have a food allergy, you could be at risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) — even if past reactions have been mild. Learn how to recognize a severe allergic reaction and know what to do if one occurs. You might need to carry an emergency epinephrine shot (EpiPen, Auvi-Q, others) for emergency self-treatment.

Celiac disease. Although some people may have only a gluten sensitivity, others may have Celiac disease which has features of a true food allergy because it involves the immune system. Most symptoms are mostly gastrointestinal, and people with celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis.

People with Celiac disease can experience severe belly pain, urgent diarrhea, bloating, and excessive gas. The disease can also cause a skin disorder called dermatitis herpetiformis, which can be intensely itchy and cause blistering skin. This condition occurs in 1 of every 4 or 5 people with Celiac disease.

Brain and nervous system disorders like migraine headaches, peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling in the feet legs, hands and face), brain fog, and loss of balance and coordination may occur. Some with Celiac disease experience fatigue and mood disorders, hormonal issues that can impact infertility, and abnormal menstrual patterns. About one third of Celiac disease patients experience bone and joint issues that lead to osteopenia and osteoporosis.

This chronic digestive condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in foods containing wheat, barley, rye, and for some, even oats. That is why there is a vital difference between a disease (allergy) and an intolerance when it comes to those with gluten related issues.

As you can see, many of you in the meetings industry might be dealing with one or more of these conditions, and it is harder to manage your conditions when you are away from your home and daily environment. There are, however, some tips and tricks to keep in mind while you are traveling to help keep your health in check. These tips are helpful for the individual managing a health-related condition and for the planners who may be putting together meal functions for attendees with these concerns.

Six steps to make travel easier. In my experience, there are some super easy things you can do to make travel away from home easier and to help keep your health in check. Before you go, you must be aware of your dietary restrictions and plan to pack things you are able to eat yourself if you are not be able to find things when you really need them.

  • Pack your own healthy snacks and a “just in case” meal. You never know when your flight may be delayed, you get a flat tire and your blood sugar gets low, or you arrive so late that the hotel restaurant is closed and you are starving.
  • Drink plenty of water (limit the alcohol). The more you stay hydrated the better your body will feel, no matter what! Try to limit what you drink (keep it to two) and have a glass of water to each cocktail you have. The more alcohol, the more sugar, which turns into fat and can cause other issues for those with diabetes and other similar conditions.
  • Stock your hotel room with quick and healthy foods. Try to locate a market or grocery nearby or find healthy options in the hotel market/gift shop. Stock up on bottled water, fresh fruits/veggies when you can find them, and some snacks that you are not allergic to. Companies like Go Picnic have great to-go meals that you can throw in your bag, are great in a pinch, and most are gluten-free.
  • Avoid junk foods, fast foods and bad decisions. Now is not the time to eat everything you can get your hands on. Crowd out the bad things like fried foods, appetizers with bacon, and sweets. Instead, try things like the vegetable tray offerings, sushi, and foods without heavy starches or sugars in them.
  • Eat a high fiber/high protein breakfast every day! It is true that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It gets your metabolism going, and when you have high fiber/high protein foods for breakfast, your body and brain are fueled for the day with lasting energy, instead of that quick and short-term burst you get from a Danish and a cup of coffee.
  • Get your exercise each day. I know that when you travel, it seems that time is not your own. It is even more important while you are on the road to get in some kind of exercise. Take the stairs instead of the elevator up to your next session. Walk from your hotel to the convention center instead of taking the shuttle. Download one of the amazing apps available for easy workouts in your room. You can have a cup of coffee and watch the news while you do the 7-Minute Workout or the 30-Day Challenge. Contact me for more resources on great workout options.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask the waiter about what is in your meal, how it was prepared, if the kitchen is gluten free. Whatever you are concerned about, ask questions! If the waiter does not know, ask to speak to the chef or call in advance. Restaurants and hotel catering departments would prefer you call ahead, explain what you can and cannot eat, and ask if they can make an accommodation for you.

If you are attending a meeting, contact the meeting planner and let him or her know if you actually have an allergy, an intolerance, or if you just prefer not to eat something. A chef will not have to worry so much about someone who prefers to follow a gluten-free diet because it is the latest fad. However, they will have serious consequences if someone with an actual allergy has a reaction to food that was prepared with the offending food in it.

In all of this, there is one common theme: Just eat real, whole food! For many people managing an autoimmune disease, managing their diet comes hand-in-hand. Here is your checklist for the road:

  • Swap red meat for fatty fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Eat calcium-rich foods, like dark leafy greens, and the more color in your food the better.
  • Limit saturated and trans fats.
  • Stay away from processed foods.
  • Avoid high carb and high sodium foods.
  • Eliminate sugar.
  • Drink more water.
For more information on managing autoimmune diseases/disorders, food allergies, and dietary restrictions, please visit my website at www.integrativewellnessstudio.net or call 312-374-8173 at The Integrative Wellness Studio.

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About the Author
Heidi Edinger SmithHeidi Edinger Smith, CMP, Certified Health Coach is Founder/President of The Integrative Wellness Studio. She is also Manager, Global Accounts, at HelmsBriscoe. She can be reached at heidismith@integrativewellnessstudio.net or at 312-374-8173.

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