Travel Restrictions: Overcoming Dietary Hurdles While Studying Abroad

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Studying abroad can be a nerve-racking, new, and exciting experience. Adding a diet restriction into the mix can seem difficult, especially if you don’t know the language or the culture of the country you are visiting. The most important thing to remember when studying abroad with a dietary restriction is that it’s completely possible and there is nothing to worry about—as long as you are adequately prepared. The key is to do your research, know the basics of the language, and be ready to accept that it will take a few weeks to adjust to the new environment and food.

Being vegetarian, gluten-free, or having an allergy can be difficult to get used to even in your own country, but once you know what you can eat it becomes second nature. The same is true when studying abroad. This is why it is important to research and know what you are getting yourself into. Taking advantage of resources like the Global Experience Office on campus and the ample amount of travel websites can aid you in your preparation. Selectwisely.com is a great resource because they have extremely helpful tips for travelling abroad with dietary needs. It is not only important to look into the diet of the places you want to visit, but also the culture. In some cases, choosing not to eat the food you are given can be taken as an insult; especially if the specific food is a delicacy. Knowing more about the culture of a place through research before travelling will help you deal with these types of situations.

Communication is key when traveling. Fourth-year international affairs major Maya Bur recently traveled to Trujillo, Peru for a four-month co-op. Bur has been a vegetarian her entire life and is used to having to find alternative meals in order to avoid meat as a result. Although she isn’t fluent in Spanish, Bur did take it in school and had a basic knowledge of the language before studying abroad. Even though her knowledge of the language was helpful, traveling with 10 other people made it even easier for when she had to communicate her dietary needs to locals.

        Language is the way you express your needs and thoughts to others. Without it, ordering at a restaurant would be impossible. Having a list of allergies written out on a note card in the dialect of the country you are in can help with the language barrier. Even if you took years of foreign language in high school and college, it never hurts to have a note card in case you get easily flustered when trying to speak with native speakers. Select Wisely is a company that makes food allergy cards in the language of the place you are visiting. This can be a literal lifesaver if you don’t know the language. That way, even if you aren’t completely fluent, you will be able to easily communicate to your waiter and hosts. There also may be a program director that can help. It is also important to remember that vegetarianism and other diets or allergies might not mean the same thing in every country. In some places claiming you are vegetarian might mean that you don’t eat red meat so fish and chicken are okay. Bur experienced this in Peru

”They don’t always think of meat the same way, meat to them means pig or cow, but for an American vegetarian it would also include seafood and chicken and any other animal,” Bur said.

Knowing more about the place you are visiting will help inform you of differences in language and culture and might help you avoid miscommunication about your dietary needs.

        Once you arrive at a new place it is vital that you get acquainted and figure out the best places to find food. This happens naturally over time, but if you want to speed up the process there are a few things you can do. Talking with a program director on where previous students following the same diet as you have eaten is the first step. This helped Bur a lot during her time in Peru. There were other students there who were also vegetarian and the program director, along with other friends, were able to help her find safe places to eat. It is also helpful to seek out local markets and farmers markets where they have all natural food. This way you know exactly what you are buying and don’t need to worry about misreading a label. Within the first month, Bur had discovered a wagon full of fresh fruits and vegetables that she knew for a fact was safe for her to eat.

“I resorted to eating a lot of fruits and vegetables,” Bur said.

Selectwisely.com follows a similar philosophy, stating with Bur that natural foods are usually the safest by saying, “Stay healthy by eating healthy.” Cooking your own meals in a kitchen might be the safest bet for people with serious allergies if you are lucky enough to have a kitchen where you are staying. Even if you don’t have your own kitchen and are living with host parents, make sure you communicate your needs with them so that they can cook foods you will be able to enjoy.

Although the transition may be challenging, Bur was able to adjust.

“It’s definitely difficult at first, but after being there for about a month I had my routine. Once I had a routine it was much easier,” Bur said.  

No matter where you decide to travel in the world and no matter what your dietary restrictions may be, don’t forget to be respectful, enjoy the food, and have fun experiencing all of the amazing opportunities study abroad has to offer. Your travels should never be limited as a result of your diet.