The thought of leaving the comforts of your own home for just a weekend can be daunting enough. Food allergies are notorious for being vacation wreckers, especially in a foreign country. It makes traveling less fun when you’re worried about whether or not you need to bust out the epi-pen or take an emergency rest stop. Whatever the symptoms, we all get a little leery about risking the possibility of ingesting something our bodies can’t tolerate.
Personally, I have my own food allergy challenges having celiac disease. For those unfamiliar with this, it is classified as an autoimmune disease, where you cannot ingest gluten, wheat, barley, or any cross contaminants of it, with the likelihood of damaging your small intestine. I had yet to travel with my recent diagnosis of celiac disease until a unique opportunity arose. Through my Dietetic Internship at Seattle Pacific University, I had the chance to go on an international rotation in Shimla, India. Allergies aside, I couldn’t possibly turn down an opportunity like this. Through my recent experience of traveling with food allergies, I want to give you some helpful tips while traveling abroad.
Tip #1: PACK SHELF STABLE SNACKS.
I can’t emphasize this enough! This saved me in a couple of tough spots. It took us three days to get to India; we had a 24 layover in Japan, where all I could eat was plain rice and edamame. Gluten-free soy sauce or tamari did not exist and the language barrier was too hard to navigate. I got kicked out of a ramen spot because I couldn’t order any ramen! Needless to say, I was pretty hangry by the time we left Japan. I might not have made it if it wasn't for the dried fruit and nuts my professor had purchased from a vendor. So, bring protein bars, trail mix, dried fruit, jerky, or whatever sounds good to help you get through the trip.
Tip #2: WHEN IN DOUBT, DON’T EVEN RISK IT.
Let’s be honest; some languages are difficult to interpret, Hindi included. I used Google Lens to translate ingredients on packaged foods or menus when I could. When I could ask a person, I would. Luckily, our host during the trip was able to tell me what foods were safe. If you have neither and are still wondering what the heck is in your food, go with the safest option. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable eating at some places, so I would order a fresh lime soda and either eat back at our base or find something I felt safer eating.
Tip #3: DROP THE GUILT.
For most of the trip, I felt guilty for others having to accommodate for my dietary needs. I realized I don’t have to feel guilty about something that isn’t my fault. We didn’t ask to have allergies or intolerances. So OWN IT and enjoy being in a new country. It’s easy to let our worries cloud our enjoyment, especially when it comes to finding good AND safe foods.
Tip #4: DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Familiarize yourself with phrases and words you can communicate with and look up local dishes and cuisines that naturally accommodate your dietary restrictions. It’s good to be prepared for these scenarios; that way, you aren’t blindsided by anything. Just know that you are not alone when navigating the challenges of dietary restrictions! Resources like the International Food Anaphylaxis and Allergy Administration (IFAAA) are available. In some countries, they provide translations for food allergy information to give to restaurants, so you can let them fully understand your dietary needs. However, this is only available for a limited number of countries.
Tip #5: TALK WITH YOUR DOC.
Before leaving, consult with your primary care provider or allergist for any recommendations or medications to take while away. Traveling with allergies is possible; just remember to do your research and be prepared. Luckily for me, India had a lot of gluten-free foods, so I did get to enjoy a lot of delicious Indian cuisine and snacks. I even discovered a new snack in India: Punjabi Tadka, which is naturally gluten-free since it’s made from different pulses and potatoes. Believe it or not, there are options for us abroad, so go explore, and happy traveling!
Jesse Jorgenson, Dietetic Intern!
A place for our consultant Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) to share nutrition science, yummy and healthy recipes, tips on seasonal ingredients, and other nutritional musings. Enjoy!