Anyone with dietary restrictions might have serious doubts about travelling in a developing area like South America, Africa or India. Those doubts are definitely founded but with a little bit of preparation and some helpful advice (mine!) you should be able to get by just like everyone else and walk away with a full tummy.
Rule #1 of a restrictive diet is to always have something to eat on you. This could be a granola bar, nuts or fruit; just try to make sure it has some sort of nutritional value so you’re not going to be hungry again in 20 minutes. Even if you follow all of the tips below there will be a time where you can’t find something to eat and you’ll be glad for the pre-packaged sustenance. If you're anything like me, once that hunger hits you won't be able to do any sort of rational thinking until you get something in your stomach.
Know what to expect
Just like with other aspects of the culture you are visiting, it is important to do some research into what you you can expect in your chosen location.
- What does a regular breakfast, lunch or dinner look like?
- How late or early do they eat?
- What is the street food like?
- Will there be modern style grocery stores or do you have to rely on markets?
- Is the diet predominately meat?
- What vegetables are grown locally?
- What are the traditional dishes?
- What are the basic ingredients of a meal? Is peanut oil used? Lard instead of butter? Do they like ham in their potato salad?
Once you know what to expect you can start thinking about how you can adapt your diet to the culture.
Learn the basics
If you are travelling to a non-English speaking country, learn how to say what you can and can’t eat in the local language. Even better write out your restrictions so you never feel rushed in a situation where there are many people ordering quickly, like with street food. I have even seen some travellers with severe allergies carry a card with a picture of their allergy with a red cross through it. That should get the point across!
Always advise your requirements when ordering! My little sister is allergic to nuts, amongst other things, but dislikes drawing attention to it when she eats out because she doesn’t want to make a fuss. Sadly, she’s been caught out a few times by mystery ingredients that have made her unwell.
Remember, even if it looks safe on the menu it’s always worth it to double check that they’re not going to add something that you can’t eat. You might be pleasantly surprised and get something special prepared off-menu by an eager chef.
Don’t use labels
Due to variations in certain diets, people can be confused or previously misled by what you may or may not eat. As a vegetarian I am often offered fish, chicken and even pork because other “vegetarians” have eaten those things. I recently met a vegan who ate dairy and eggs "outside of home" and even ate shellfish “because they don’t feel any pain”.
Everyone has different reasons for eating what they do but just be aware that simply stating that you are a part of a certain group of people leaves your meal up to interpretation. Be specific!
Understand what you will missing
Having dietary restrictions often means you will miss out on having some of the traditional dishes of a country. No need to despair though! Usually if you head to any tourist hub you can find alternative versions of local dishes.
When studying Spanish in Cusco, I ate a lot of my meals at a vegetarian restaurant that made vegetarian dishes of the local meals. I even got to have a mushroom ceviche!
You could also try to find a local cooking school who is willing to help you adapt a particular dish and learn how to cook it yourself.
If it doesn’t change the recipe drastically (like no peanut oil for a stir fry), you can try to direct the restaurant or food vendor to emit a particular ingredient. In El Salvador and Honduras where the pupusa and balleada are cheap and tasty streets foods, it’s very easy to get vege-only versions.
Think about your nutrition
When I’m travelling I find it especially difficult to make sure I’m getting a balanced diet each day. Some days I’ll get to midday and have no energy and just want a nap. More often than not I’ll realise that I’ve had no protein, thus the lack of energy.
Make sure that whatever you are eating everyday has a good balance of carbohydrates, fats, proteins as well vitamins, minerals and lots of water!
Find health food stores to stock up on nutrient rich foods that you can eat on the go or add to your meals. I genuinely recommend chia seeds because they are rich in fibre. Research other so-called “super foods” to supplement nutrients that you might otherwise be missing out on.
Health food stores are also great places to find alternatives like soy and nut milks for those who don’t eat lactose. If you like a light breakfast you could consider buying some protein powder and mixing that up with some water for a quick meal that you can also take on the go.
Top tip: Breakfast for lunch?
This is my favourite piece of advice! It’s true, breakfast is the best meal of the day and if you have dietary restrictions, it’s also the easiest way to accommodate them.
For a person with dietary restrictions breakfast can be your saviour. If you’re a celiac, then you can have fruit salad or a breakfast without the toast or tortillas. If you’re lactose intolerant then just avoid the yoghurt and any butter heavy meals. Vegan? Just skip the eggs and enjoy something more continental.
I have found that even in the smallest towns I have been able to find something enjoyable and filling for breakfast. It’s also the easiest thing to cook for yourself if you have access to a kitchen. Usually, I will try to eat my full at breakfast and then just have a light snack at lunch.
Importantly, if you’re stuck for something to eat at lunch or even dinner, try asking if you can have a breakfast dish instead. This has worked for me in a pinch and as breakfast is my favourite meal it never feels like I’m missing out. Most places will be happy to prepare a breakfast dish for you, especially if you let them know that’s it’s because you don’t have many other choices on the menu.
Other helpful tips
1) Find a place with a kitchen so you can cook for yourself. Think hostels, Couchsurfing or Airbnb.
2) When in doubt head towards places that you know will have food that you can eat. Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern food are usually my safe bets and you should be able to find one of these in any bigger city.
3) Browse markets for fresh fruit and veg that you can eat on the go. Often there are chopped and bagged fruit ready for you to snack on or take on-the-go.
5) Be prepared to be bored with your choices. In some places you might find that there really are just not that many options for you. In the Amazonian jungle region, I have often found that the choice was rice and fish or just rice. Luckily, I had my handy bottle of hot sauce to spice it up as well a few pieces of fruit and veg to keep me going.
6) Get ready to have many a conversation about your chosen diet. More so than at home, people will likely want to delve into your diet, why you’ve chosen it, how it works etc. In some places, locals might be baffled and genuinely confused about why you eat what you do.
7) Raw oats! These are a great option for an on-the-go quick healthy meal. Just add hot water and you’re good to go. I have been able to find some variety of these in most places I’ve been to. Also check out other local grains available, like quinoa in South America or Teff in Ethiopia.
As a vegetarian for over 15 years who enjoys getting out and exploring the world, I admit that sometimes I have come across some tricky food situations. I have learnt over time that the most important thing is to be prepared and you should be able to overcome most obstacles. If all else fails, you should always have a granola bar or piece of fruit handy that can keep you satiated until you find another option.
Just remember to stay positive and enjoy getting to know the culture around you. Even if you’re not getting to eat everything that locals do, keep in mind that some locals have dietary restrictions too! Have you got any tips for surviving with dietary restrictions while travelling?