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Celiac Around the World: Interview with Yara Living in Saudi Arabia

Images from Saudi Arabia

How old were you when you were diagnosed with Celiac? How did you find out you had Celiac?

Yara was diagnosed with celiac in 1995, she was about a year old at the time. She began having problems when she started solid food. "I had growth and weight issues, I wasn’t growing at a normal rate. In addition, I was suffering from severe diarrhea and vomiting. After spending many days in the hospital, changing many doctors to get the right diagnosis, my parents took me to a pediatrician." Her pediatrician suggested possible food allergies as well as blood tests and other tests to try to get a diagnosis. "Celiac disease wasn’t common in the nineties. For this reason, my diagnosis was late."

Do any of your family members have Celiac?

Yara's mother started having abdominal bloating and Uveitis two years ago. "After checking with an ophthalmologist, a gastrologist, and a family physician she couldn’t find an answer to her case.

After a while, she took an appointment with a dietitian." Before giving my mom a diet plan, she gave her a list of blood tests including IGA, and IGG. Since then, my mom has been diagnosed with celiac and is following a strict diet."

What do you find to be the hardest part of living with Celiac?

"In my opinion, celiac isn’t taken seriously by many. For this reason, eating out while celiac is so challenging." She explains that many restaurants don't have a gluten-free menu. There is also a big risk of cross-contamination since they use a shared kitchen. Yara explains that many believe if there is no wheat in the ingredients then the product is safe for celiac. "In some cases, products that are naturally gluten-free, are produced in facilities that also produce products that contain wheat. In this case, the risk of cross-contamination is high. How can I trust these people?"

Yara explains that if she complains about this people will tell her "it is ok, a portion would not kill you”, seriously you are overexaggerating", and “you are making a scene.”

Are there any positives that you feel came from your diagnosis?

"I thank God that my case can be treated by only avoiding gluten from my diet. I am not required to take any medication. I can enjoy life with no symptoms!"

Do you know anyone else with celiac?

"Four years ago, I joined the Lebanese celiac community, and when I moved to Saudi Arabia, a year ago, I joined its celiac community. Since joining both communities, I met amazing people who are either newly diagnosed or their children have gluten intolerance or celiac."

Eating out in Saudi Arabia

How knowledgeable is Saudi Arabia's food industry regarding Celiac disease?

"When I moved to Saudi Arabia, I was surprised that the restaurant’s chef and crew are aware of celiac concerning ingredients, but they don’t know that gluten-free food has to be cooked in separate utensils/kitchen to avoid cross-contamination. At the same time, when visiting a restaurant, many celiac people are satisfied only by cutting gluten from their dishes.

I have experienced eating out once. After a couple of hours, I started feeling bad. I suffered from bloating, and stomach pain, and I needed to scratch my body until it turned red."

Are the menus marked for allergens and gluten-free food?

"Yes, menus in fine dining restaurants are marked for allergen. Yet it is not safe to eat because staff will not consider cross-contamination. The only place I can trust is the restaurant that only cooks gluten-free meals. There is one I know in Riyad called “gluten-free bakery, خبزي الخالي."

Do restaurants usually have something you can eat safely?

"Since restaurant menus are marked for allergens and some people find this enough, I can say that yes some restaurants have something to eat safely."

What is the easiest/hardest about eating out?

"The hardest of eating out is the cross-contamination risk. Restaurants that offer gluten-free meals are few and only located in the main cities like Riyad and Jeddah."

How common are Celiac/gluten-free dietary restrictions in Saudi Arabia?

"The law in Saudi Arabia is very strict. A company can’t say that its products are gluten-free if they are not because in case someone consumed a certain product and got hurt, he/she can sue the company."

Buying Gluten-Free food

Is it easy for you to find gluten-free options at the grocery store?

"Yes sure. In almost all supermarkets, gluten-free products are available. Either local or imported products (like Schar, Bob Red Mill). Many stores in Riyad sell only gluten-free products like proland, and tafsir al hala."

Are foods clearly marked gluten-free?

"Yes, products are clearly marked gluten-free, some are third-party labelled."

What would you say is your biggest struggle eating gluten-free in Saudi Arabia?

"The biggest struggle eating out while celiac is cross-contamination."

Is eating gluten-free more expensive in Saudi Arabia?

"In general Gluten-free products are more expensive than regular products. The Saudi Arabia Celiac community has collaborated with many restaurants and stores to get celiac people holding the “celiac community membership card” called “bitaket siliyaki, بطاقة سيلياكي” a discount. This card is available for everyone (locals and foreigners) if they got proof that they have celiac."

Does the government help with the expense of gluten-free food?

"After being diagnosed, locals fill out an application and submit their medical documents to the ministry of special needs. After the ministry processes their application, they are entitled to a monthly subvention (around 300$ a month if I am not mistaken), and to food support that they can pick it up from public hospitals, the diet department."


Do you have to worry about gluten in your over-the-counter or prescribed medication?

"Yes, before taking any medication (if needed), I make the necessary research to check if the prescribed medication is gluten-free and safe."

Travel in Saudi Arabia

If someone is coming to Saudi Arabia for the first time, what would you say are the “must-see” spots?

"I have visited Dammam, Khobar, and Riyad, and I can say that Riyad festivals and the sea in Dammam and Khobar are a must. Summer festivals in Alqassim are amazing."

Yara's favorite foods are pictured, as well as a picture of Yara.

Above are some of Yara's favorite dishes. She prefers savory dishes. Pictured above is gluten-free cheesy bread, a burger, and fries as well as a fig tart. Yara is currently living in Saudi Arabia but is from Lebanon. She has agreed to tell me more about her home country. Keep watching for my next interview with Yara about Lebanon.

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