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Dietary Issues

Asian market
For many students, discovering and experiencing new foods is a significant part of the study abroad experience. Sharing another culture's food can offer insights into rituals, etiquette rules, and the experience of belonging, not to mention the adventure of trying new flavors and traditions. However, studying abroad and being exposed to different foods can also be intimidating and challenging for those with dietary issues.

The list of tips and resources below can help you navigate dietary issues while preparing to study abroad and while studying broad. It is our hope that, with planning and preparation, experiencing new foods can still be an enjoyable, or at least manageable, aspect of the study abroad experience for those with dietary issues – whether those issues are due to health concerns or conditions (e.g., allergies; eating disorders; or chronic conditions like Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease, Diabetes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Ulcerative Colitis), religious beliefs, or lifestyle choices.

  • If you are comfortable doing so, talk with a Study Abroad Advisor early in the process to ensure that your dietary issues are considered throughout the decision-making, application, and placement process. Discuss if it will be easy or difficult to accommodate your dietary issues in your top-choice country(ies).
  • Research the host country and how common your dietary issues are there, to help you assess how accommodating the food culture could be to your needs. Keep in mind that some dietary issues are unheard of in some other countries.
  • Ask what time of day meals are usually eaten and which meals tend to be bigger or smaller. Find out what the typical meals are in the host country and if certain foods are consumed every day or even at every meal (e.g., rice). Consider researching the ingredients in popular or common foods (e.g., shellfish and fish are very common in Japanese cuisine, fish sauce is common in Thai dishes).
  • For a faculty-led program, consider discussing your dietary issues with the faculty leader (e.g., during the pre-departure orientation).
  • For other program types, get help from the Study Abroad Advisor to reach out to on-site staff to inquire if the foods and medications that you need are available in country (e.g., through specialty markets). Ask a lot of questions to make sure your expectations are realistic.
  • If, after reaching out to contacts, it seems that you might have a problem meeting your dietary needs while in country, consider purchasing easily portable and non-perishable foods and bring a supply with you (e.g., protein bars, supplements).
  • For serious dietary issues, be sure to meet with your doctor:
    • Share what you have learned through research with your doctor, as s/he may not be as familiar with what is and is not available in the host country.
    • Seek the doctor’s guidance as to whether the location is a viable option based on your current health and the availability of foods, medications, and health services.
    • Discuss any medication(s) and availability in the host country. Confirm the legality of the medication(s) in the host country. Ensure you have the recommended supply with the original prescription/documentation and original packaging to bring with you, or ensure you can access a sufficient supply in country.
    • In the case of severe allergies, seriously consider the availability of medications, especially if your allergy requires an EpiPen. EpiPens are not always available in other countries, so confirm whether there is a pharmacy in your host city and, if so, the cost.
    • Possibly discuss dietary supplements.
  • Find out how your dietary issues are referred to and understood by local people. For example, sometimes locals understand “vegetarian” to mean that you just like to eat a lot of vegetables but that a bit of meat for “seasoning” is just fine or that chicken stock in soup is no problem.
  • Learn some of the local language:
    • Make sure you know how to express the difference between “I can’t eat ____” and “I won’t eat ____”.
    • Learn the words both for foods that you can eat and for those that you cannot. That will help you immensely when navigating the ingredients of a dish described on a menu.
    • Practice describing your dietary issue in a way that is simple yet specific and respectful (e.g., "I am ____ [vegetarian, kosher, halal, etc.]”, "I don't eat ____ [wheat, meat, cheese, eggs, etc. ]", or "I'm allergic to ____ [nuts, dairy, etc.] and that means I can get very sick if I eat it.”
    • Perhaps prepare a brief explanation of your dietary issues (e.g., “I have been a vegetarian for 15 years because of personal health issues. My stomach can no longer handle meat, so I get sick if I accidentally eat some. I really appreciate your help avoiding meat, so that I can stay healthy and enjoy all the other delicious dishes here!”).
    • Research some local dishes that you can eat and suggest them as a polite way to express that you do enjoy local cuisine (e.g., “I don’t eat fish, but I do eat poultry. I love Tinga De Pollo!”). Host family members, friends, street vendors, wait staff, and others will have an easier time offering you something if you already know some local dishes.
    • If you are unsure about navigating the issues in another language, consider printing a note in the local language to explain important information about your dietary issues, such as what you cannot eat and the degree of severity if consumed. Keep it in your wallet, or even make copies to give out to wait staff.
  • Consider whether you need a certain type of accommodation in order to better manage your dietary issues (e.g., your own apartment versus a host family’s home, a residence hall with kitchen facilities versus an on-campus dorm).
  • Once you choose or are assigned an accommodation, communicate your dietary issues (e.g., with university housing staff or host family members) and, as necessary, provide some helpful resources to them (e.g., information on cross-contamination). If staying with a host family, find out whether they typically prepare most or all of your meals and if it will be possible for you to prepare your own meals.
  • Make arrangements for your meals on your flight(s): if on a group flight, work through OIE and the UW System travel agency to request special meals; if on an individual flight, contact the airline directly to request special meals several days before the flight.
In Country
  • Keep in mind: The experience of living in another country or cultural context can be stressful, which can aggravate some health conditions; therefore, it is more important than ever to get enough rest, exercise regularly, take any medications as prescribed, and ensure you’re eating a balanced, nutritious diet so that you can effectively deal with the stressors and enjoy the experience.
  • Work with on-site staff to locate a safe and secure space where you can store your medication(s). Make sure key people are aware of the medication location (e.g., roommates, friends, host family members, on-site staff).
  • As soon as possible after arrival, identify the location of the nearest hospital in case of an emergency, and make sure others (e.g., roommates, host family members) know when and where to seek help and even how to use an EpiPen or administer insulin if necessary.
  • Even though you may have discussed your dietary issues with roommates or host family members before arrival, have another conversation to ensure there is clear understanding. Having this conversation will prevent an awkward moment of having to turn down a nicely cooked meal at a group dinner or family meal.
  • Very soon after arrival, make sure that you explore nearby grocers, health stores, markets, etc. to know what is and is not available near you and what you may need to seek help finding.
  • With a new local friend or on-site staff, check that the words and phrases you were practicing prior to departure are good translations.
  • As some countries have limited public restrooms, some require payment to use the restrooms, and/or some do not supply toilet paper, carefully plan your travels and make sure you have a backup plan wherever you go if bathroom accessibility is particularly important due to your health issues.
  • When planning excursions (e.g., weekend travel), make sure you have prepared snacks or made other arrangements to meet your dietary needs while away from your regular accommodation.
  • Consult helpful websites and locals to identify restaurants and markets that work for you. Also consult the websites listed in the resources below.
  • Expect that you will experience miscommunication with locals regarding your dietary issues. Be prepared to be met with confusion or even a dismissive attitude. Be ready to explain in multiple ways what you mean and to provide examples.