I recently interviewed Abir who is from Lebanon and is currently living in Portugal. She shares her experiences living with celiac disease in Portugal. Abir was only eight years old when she was diagnosed with celiac disease. She says "I can't forget the day and all the mixed feelings I passed through!" She had several symptoms of celiac as a child such as "stunted growth, eye-vision shortage, joint pain, headache, constipation, anemia, low bone density." All of her family members have been screened for celiac disease and none of them have it at this time.
What do you find to be the hardest part of living with Celiac? "Well I adapted quite well, yet the hardest is to always be the "cook" and take your own food with you wherever you go... I hate that!" Are there any positives that you feel came from your diagnosis? Abir explains that her celiac diagnosis was very positive for her. She no longer had to suffer. She explained that she "learned to read food labels and choose what to get not only in terms of gluten-free ingredients but also healthy ones." She sees herself as a celiac "warrior, supporter, empathetic, and influencer. With celiac, I have a target in life! I aim to create my own celiac cloud and overwhelm it with support and awareness."
Do you know anyone else with celiac? "Due to my ambition of weaving a better life for celiacs, I created a Facebook group in 2012 then an Instagram page with more than 4,000 celiac followers, or family members as I like to call them."
Eating out in Portugal
How knowledgeable is the food industry in regard to Celiac disease? "Super knowledgeable and well aware of cross-contamination!" The Portuguese Celiac Association creates awareness and implements and oversees food labeling laws.
Are the menus clearly marked for allergens and gluten-free food? "It depends from one city to another!" Even if the menu doesn't give allergen information if you let the staff know you have celiac they will ensure you eat safely. This is true all around Portugal even in the more rural areas. One of Abir's favorite things to eat out is "grilled fish with oil and salt on a clean grill to prevent cross-contact and boiled veggies in fresh water on the side." Abir shares that she doesn't really have a difficult time eating out in Portugal.
How common are Celiac/gluten-free dietary restrictions in Portugal? "I don't know about the statistics here in Portugal. But I think it's widely spread, as whenever I say I have celiac to someone, they tell me about one of their siblings that has celiac as well... so I don't think it's a coincidence!" Buying Gluten-Free food Is it easy for you to find gluten-free options at the grocery store? "Widely available! Even in vending machines, there's a row just for special dietary needs (GF / diabetic / Vegan/infants food.)" Can you imagine being about to buy food for special dietary needs from a vending machine in the United States? That would be amazing!
Are foods clearly marked gluten-free? "Yes, and if not then you will have the allergen info clearly stated."
What would you say is your biggest struggle eating gluten-free in Portugal? "I can't remember any... but maybe not having Lebanese food in Gluten Free version in Portugal." 😂
Is eating gluten-free more expensive in Portugal? "Imported brands are more expensive, but local brands are ok in terms of price with very good quality and taste! I buy Portuguese in fact."
Does the government help with the expense of gluten-free food? "I don't know actually as I am not Portuguese...but we have discounts coming from APC agreements with some stores."
Medication Do you have to worry about gluten in your over-the-counter or prescribed medication? "The pharmacists are so cooperative in this issue and they check all the ingredients," Abir explains that all of the over-the-counter medication that she has gotten had a corn base so she had not had an issue with them.
Travel in Portugal
If someone was coming to Portugal for the first time, what would you say are the “must-see” spots? "Well... that's a hard question! Portugal is literally amazing and each city is worth discovering! But my best and favourite spot is "Nazaré" ❤️ Then comes Lisbon (the capital), Óbidos and Tomar (in the center), Algarve and Faro (south), Aveiro and Porto (North). Seriously I can't summarise the beauty of Portugal as each city is different and more magical than the other."
Thank you, Abir for sharing your experiences in Portugal! It sounds like an amazing country with wonderful places to visit, and easy to eat with celiac disease. Portugal is on my list of places I want to visit. Please check out Abir's Instagram and Facebook pages @celiaccoach_byabir.