Even at the best of times, living with food restrictions is really annoying. Whether it is by choice, or for medical reasons, cutting certain items out of your diet can be tricky and is so easily underestimated by others. That being said, in the UK we are incredibly fortunate with how many options we have for those with dietary requirements. Most supermarkets have a "free-from" section, most restaurants have separate menus for each restriction - heck, you can even get a whole range of different Quorn escalopes now. But this definitely isn’t the case in all countries, and while it is slowly improving, it is still a big issue in large parts of the world.
I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a fair bit of travelling around the world. From countries in Asia, like China and India, to North America. I’ve even had the opportunity to interrail for a month around Europe, and never once has it been simple for me to eat.
I am unfortunately both gluten-free and allergic to beans. This tends to work against me twofold. In western countries, I have worked out that we have based almost the entirety of western cuisine off of either bread or pasta. You never truly grasp how much pastry there is in each European country until you travel through them all successively; and on the odd occasion where it is a potato-based dish… they add wheat to the sauce.
Eastern countries, however, are much less of a problem when it comes to gluten, yet I find myself then only to get caught up in the caveat of a frequently bean-based diet. Gluten makes me feel unwell, but certain beans just straight-up destroy me. Add a language barrier to this, and you can see how it might be difficult for someone with dietary restrictions to manage to eat in a foreign country.
However, unless I am writing this from beyond the grave, you can probably guess that I didn’t die from eating whilst abroad. As such, I wanted to provide a few tips for how to travel safely to anyone who might be travelling for the first time with intolerances or allergies.
You can’t change a country’s cuisine, and you shouldn’t ruin your time looking from place to place to find somewhere you can be 100% confident you can eat. What you can do is address the language barrier issue. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to learn an entirely new language. Instead, I recommend creating printed out cards with the translation of what you can’t eat written on them – this is what I did in China. Then you just show the card to any place you are buying food from. Combine this with your own intuitions, and you should avoid most of your dietary issues. Plus, if you have it printed out, you avoid the risk of your phone dying, or poorly translated Google phrases.
Another recommendation I have is to buy lots of your food from supermarkets. This seems obvious, but only in supermarkets can you look at the ingredients of your food in-depth without having to rely on anyone. As long as you know the translation for your allergen in the country you are staying, then you can circumvent most culinary predicaments. Sure, it’s not ideal to not always be eating great fresh food from a foreign country, but having a backup of pre-made food is better than going hungry.
My final piece of advice would be to get some travel insurance. Whilst you don’t aim to end up ill or needing to go to a hospital during your time abroad, it is always a possibility. This is especially true for those with dietary requirements, and despite your best efforts in avoiding certain foods, you have to accept that it could still happen. This is when having travel insurance comes in handy. It honestly doesn’t cost very much, and it saves you a heck of a lot in medical bills (and stress). Some medical centres in other countries won’t treat you unless you have insurance, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) can’t provide any medical expenses for British citizens abroad. I had to go to a GP myself when I got ill with food poisoning in Germany, and I am so thankful that I had travel insurance.