Word of mouth

Local Facebook groups support those with special diets

While a lot people think of social media primarily as a place for selfies with animated cat features or flower crowns, questionable political rants by relatives and coworkers, and ubiquitous pics of coffee shop snacks, for some locals living with specialized dietary concerns, and those making health-related diet choices, social media can offer a repository of helpful information.

Local educator Katie Muth found out her son has celiac disease when he was 18 months old. Her husband, she learned, has it, too. Celiac disease, which affects one in 100 people, is an autoimmune disorder characterized by severe reactions to eating gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Individuals with celiac disease treat it by eliminating gluten from their diets.

While “Gluten-Free” may be increasingly common on food product packaging and restaurant menus these days, that was not the case eight years ago when Muth had to figure out what foods she could and could not feed her family.

“We’ve been eating gluten-free since long before the gluten-free aisle started showing up in stores,” Muth explained, emphasizing the severity of her family’s food restrictions. “Even the slightest cross contamination can make them ill.”

About six years ago, Muth created a Facebook group, Gluten Free in Reno, to encourage interaction among local residents who had been attending classes she taught about living a gluten-free lifestyle.

“I created the group to help find local resources—new items, restaurants that are safe,” Muth said. “At the time I was teaching community education classes about the basics of being gluten-free and for parents of gluten-free children through TMCC, and it was a good way for us to keep in touch and help each other.”

The Gluten Free in Reno Facebook group currently has more than 170 members. It has also served as a resource for information for local dining establishments who are seeking information on accommodating special diets. Muth said it has been great, “having businesses reach out to find out how they can keep our food safe to eat. The best part is watching, over the last two years, as the list of gluten free-friendly businesses grows. And restaurants are going out of their way, and my son can now be a little bit more ’normal’ in what he eats.”

Gehn Shibayama is another local with a special diet, though his was adopted by choice. An avid backpacker, Shibayama was living in the Bay Area four years ago when he began paying more attention to his health.

“I was a little over 40, and I started thinking about how I could be active as long as possible,” he explained.

As a result, Shibayama adopted a completely plant-based diet, commonly called a vegan diet.

“I did a lot of research, and I transitioned to completely vegan from day one,” he said. “Before that, I was eating meat. But I started a whole food, plant-based—I don’t eat things like white rice or white bread.”

In the Bay Area, people and businesses familiar with the plant-based diet were much more common, and Shibayama said he didn’t need to use the internet or social media to connect with those around him in the vegan community.

“But I moved to Reno a few years ago, and there weren’t many vegans, so I almost immediately found this VegNV group,” he said.

Shibayama mentioned that there was a Meetup.com group dedicated to Reno-area vegans when he first moved to Northern Nevada; however, it was gradually replaced with a Facebook group where the emphasis wasn’t solely on organizing group outings, and allowed for much more conversation to take place online. Currently, the VegNV Facebook group has over 550 members.

While Shibayama said there tend to be better resources than Facebook for seeking out information like vegan-friendly recipes and new products, the VegNV group is great for more localized information and news.

“We can exchange information about a new restaurant which might have a really good vegan menu, or some people use the group for things like looking to rent a room with vegan housemates,” he said. “We’ll have meet-ups at restaurants that have a lot of vegan items on their menu. Sometimes I’ll host potlucks or movie-watching events, and I’ll post it on the group.”

Regardless of motivation, adopting a more restrictive diet in the Reno area comes with its own challenges, particularly for those who may be accustomed to the wider array of options that exist in larger urban areas. But it seems like one of the agreed-upon strengths of social media is the option to tailor the content to the interest of a localized audience.

“It is a great opportunity for our community to find support and information,” Muth said. “I think the best threads on the group are about local options—simply asking for advice on restaurants, doctors or where to locate products in town is a valuable resource.”