Navigating a Foreign Country While On a Special Diet

Exploring a country’s cuisine is one of the most exciting (and delicious!) parts of studying abroad. However, those with any dietary restrictions or allergies may be apprehensive about living in a foreign place when they are not familiar with what options are available to them. There is no need to worry, though, because thousands of students with dietary restrictions study abroad around the world each year! 

Here are a few tips we have picked up that will come in handy as you prepare and go abroad.

Pre-Departure

If you have any dietary restrictions or preferences, it is important to let USAC know early on in the pre-departure process so your needs can be accommodated. When filling out your health and housing documents in USAC Gateway, make sure to state your dietary restrictions. This will ensure that your in-country staff is aware of any dietary needs you have and there will be special meals ready for you during any included meals during field trips and field studies.

Keep any dietary restrictions or allergies in mind as you select your housing option as well. In general, living in an apartment will give you more freedom to cook your own meals and control the ingredients. However, If you are interested in a homestay option, do not let your dietary restrictions deter you from living with a host family. Host families can offer unparalleled insights into the local culture and language, and USAC will work with local families to find the best homestay for you. Be sure to maintain open communication with your host family to avoid misunderstandings about your dietary restrictions and preferences.

A student enjoys dinner with their host family in Floripa, Brazil
A student enjoys dinner with their host family

Language and Culture Tips

A helpful tip is to learn the words for your dietary restriction in the language of your host country before arrival. Learning how to say “Tem opções sem gluten? (Are there gluten free options?) in Portuguese or “Ich bin gegen Milch allergisch” (I am allergic to milk) in German will help you make your needs clear to locals.

In countries with more complicated writing systems and languages, learning to recognize the word or symbol for your dietary restriction will be helpful as well. For example, in Thailand, using the word “Jay” (Buddhist veganism) while ordering food will communicate that you want your meal made without animal ingredients. However, because most signs are written in Thai, recognizing the Thai symbol for the word jay is useful. If you need help, ask the local staff if they could write down the word, phrase, or symbol on a note card for you so you can keep it with you.

It is also important to recognize that understanding of dietary restrictions can vary based on local culture. In some cultures, for example, saying that you do not eat “meat” may give the assumption that you do eat chicken, fish, etc. Therefore, always make sure to be clear about the local culture’s understanding of your specific diet. Learning words in the local language of foods that you do not eat can help with this.

Miscellaneous Tips

So you’ve made sure the USAC staff is aware of your dietary restrictions and have learned enough words in the local language to get by without any problems… now what?

One recommendation is to always carry filling snacks with you, especially when you are traveling to areas you are not familiar with. While there may be many food/restaurant options in your program city, it may be more difficult to find meal options in smaller towns and villages. Snacks like fruits, nuts, or granola bars are always good options to have on hand.

A useful website for vegetarians and vegans is happycow.com. Happy Cow lists thousands of vegetarian and vegan restaurants worldwide and will not only help you find restaurants that fit your dietary restriction, but discover new places in your study abroad city as well. Likewise, check online for any local vegetarian/vegan groups to join; this can be a great way to make local friends!

It’s also very likely that there will be other students on the program that will have similar dietary needs as yourself. In addition, seek out local groups online and in person that you can join to help you through your journey.

Happy eating!