Navigating dietary restrictions abroad

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Illustration by Lydia Wojack-West

Studying abroad is both exciting and nerve wracking. We usually have specific worries particular to our situations when traveling to another country. For me, that was my dietary restrictions. I’m allergic to peanuts, mustard, eggs, dairy, and I stay away from most nuts. Plus I’m a vegetarian. As I prepared to travel to Scotland to study for a month this summer, I began researching restaurants that offered vegan food, as well as brands I could eat. For those of you that might deal with the same issues, here are some tips I’ve learned through this process.

As I mentioned, research is key. During your first week there, you’ll most likely be jetlagged and want to know what restaurants you can go to, what stores have brands of food you can eat, or what a specific, traditional dish contains. You’ll also want to research labeling techniques in your host country. For example, in the U.K., they label the main food allergies that the product contains, though they are not required to label if the product was made in a facility that uses those allergens (though most do).

Your dorm or a host family should have a kitchen. My program luckily took us to Sainsbury’s the day after we arrived so we could get groceries straightaway. I also brought some basic items (a few tea bags, a few instant oatmeal bags) in my carry-on, so I had that for the first few days. But while studying abroad, even the grocery stores are different! On the plus side, stores here in Scotland have cheaper tofu. On the downside, I can’t find vegan ice cream at any of them.

So far, I’ve done a lot of cooking here. With the grocery stores being reasonably priced, this has saved me money, helped me be a bit more healthy, and made it easy to follow my dietary restrictions. The easiest thing to eat with my diet is carbs, which, while making food taste great, don’t give me enough energy for the day. After about a week here, I realized I needed to eat more veggies and protein, and I started cooking more well-rounded meals.

Thankfully, I haven’t had to worry too much about my most serious allergy: peanuts. While I always mention it at restaurants, peanuts don’t pop up in Scotland too much. In other countries though, they could be a real danger. If you’re traveling to a country that uses a lot of a severe allergen, you’ll want to be extra careful, especially if the language is more unfamiliar.

Studying abroad is an amazing experience even though my diet was definitely one of my key worries coming over. There have definitely been some challenges, but through research and purposeful attempts at being healthy, I’ve been okay. The first week my diet was irregular and weird, but after three weeks here I’ve gotten the hang of Scottish grocery shopping and have been discovering some cool places with vegan options—I’ve even found vegan shortbread. Be safe, be healthy, and enjoy your experience!

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