Go! Eat! Dietary Restrictions in Travel

French food platterOf all the great travel experiences, there is one constant--eating well wherever you are will make your trip richer and more fun. But what if you have allergies or dietary restrictions in travel that will keep you from eating whatever you like? Not to worry, you can eat local and eat well wherever you go, as long as you're flexible and open to finding solutions.After many years tour guiding, I think I've dealt with just about every issue imaginable. I've got some stories. Diet fads are common, they come and go, I've seen it all. The Atkins Diet was particularly frustrating for a guide working in Italy...the land of carbs.I've had clients that, by necessity and not choice, could pretty much just eat only lettuce. I met someone once that would only eat peanut M&Ms and Coke. Another only ate French Fries, but that's another story...

Eat Local! Visit the Museum of Food

I like to look at food while traveling as a can't-miss sight. I call it a visit to the Museum of Food. If you don't eat the local food, you haven't really been to a place. It's like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. Eating a real crepe is equal to (or more important than) seeing the Mona Lisa. And has no calories. Didn't you know that food has no calories while you travel? True story.I've eaten fondue in Switzerland, haggis in Scotland, spleen in Palermo, crickets in Thailand and some potato-like root vegetable in Paraguay. Those experiences are some of the most memorable to me.My policy on tour is the policy in my house--a no-thank-you bite is required. It's not required to like it, but it is required to try it. Yes, even the crunchy dung beetles in Cambodia. But have a local peel them for you first.Not everyone can dive in whole hog, though, I know that. Broadening definitions and boundaries is the starting point.

Is it an Allergy or a Preference?

Since a visit to the Museum of Food is an important part of travel, the first question as far as dietary restrictions goes is-- is it an allergy or a preference? All allergies can be accommodated, but preferences are something else.I define a food preference as choosing not to eat something. The reasons could be simple: just not liking something. The reasons can be complex as well: religious observation, lifestyle choices, beauty regime oriented, personal objections for who-knows-what-happened-in-your-childhood. Some of those are totally legit. Others...less so.The thing is, if you unnecessarily restrict what you choose to eat while you travel, you may be missing out on a cool experience. I don't particularly like fish, but I will eat it in Sicily because that's what you do there.I feel sorry for people who refuse to eat tomatoes in Italy because they just don't like tomatoes. Generally, I feel sad for people who don't eat the beautiful food the world has to offer due to having a closed mind.Rick Steves has famously said "If it's not to your liking, change your liking." I agree with this wholeheartedly. If you have food preferences, leave them that the airplane door if you can. Leave the diet or lifestyle choice behind for a few days.Try everything, even stuff you normally hate. You may find a whole new universe of food waiting for you.Allergies are NOT a Reason to Stay HomeThere are serious allergies out there, and they seem to be getting more common. That's the bad news. The good news is that the world has become much more aware of the issue. You don't need to stay home or hide under the sheets due to a food allergy.Dietary restrictions in travel are not unusual anymore. I can't think of a single time when I haven't been able to work out something to get a traveler through a trip, no matter what the issue. Seriously, have I mentioned that I've seen some strange things? It always works out.If you don't believe me, I always fall back on lettuce. I have never met a person who couldn't eat lettuce. Also rice. Pretty much everyone can eat those. They are available in just about every country, fixed in a thousand different ways. Can you drink water? Everyone has water.See? You'll be fine. It's not exciting, but even they most troubled tummy can find something to get by on.

Strategies for Dietary Restrictions in Travel

I have a pretty simple approach to travelers with serious dietary restrictions-plan ahead. Maybe these strategies will help others sort through how to get out and travel without fear.

  • Write a list of what you can't eat. Use Google Translate to print that list out in the local language, with "I can't eat..." at the top. Laminate it and keep it in your money belt.
  • Write a list of what you CAN eat and research common local dishes that will work. I find it much easier for people to list what they absolutely can eat, and then coming up with dishes of those ingredients.
  • Bring emergency food. Just in case, stock up on protein bars that work for you in case something goes awry.
  • Contact airlines, hotels and restaurants ahead of time to warn them. Many hotels and restaurants are willing to go out and get what you need with an advance reservation.
  • Be your own policeman. Even if you are assured that what you are served is edible for you, beware. I've had that problem with pine nuts, I said NO nuts and they didn't think pine nuts counted. Thank goodness for Benadryl.
  • Speaking of Benadryl, bring your meds and tell others where they are. If you're alone, pin a card with that info to your daybag.
  • Don't tell people you're allergic to something if you simply don't like it. People know when you do that. Really. They do. It's like crying wolf, it is a disservice to people who really have serious allergies.
  • Above all, be cool about it. Don't demand, don't expect. It's that whole honey vs vinegar thing. If you need people to help you, they need to feel appreciated for their efforts. I'll walk to the ends of the earth for someone who is kind and gentle about their needs.

The bottom line on dietary restrictions in travel: is it a real allergy or a preference? If it's a preference, can you set that aside for a few weeks? If it's an allergy, don't worry, just plan ahead and ask for help. No need to stay home, the world is waiting for you. So is the lettuce.