Dietary Needs Abroad

Studying abroad is a major life experience for most students; it can be daunting to leave home, leave friends, and your life to study in a foreign country.  For those with special dietary needs, the challenge can be that much more intimidating. And while it is certainly a challenge to work around dietary needs, it can and has been done many times before. So if you are concerned about your dietary restrictions abroad, whether they are a lifestyle choice, allergy complications, or a religious restriction, there are ways around these challenges while abroad. Where there is a will, there is a way! We are offering some advice to help you experience another culture while continuing in your healthy/necessary eating habits. The following is broken down into two categories:  what to do before departing, and what to do while in country. 


The most important part about having special dietary needs abroad is preparing before you leave for the semester. Knowing country specific information can help you avoid going hungry or having a serious health complication. Here are some guidelines on how to best prepare before arriving in your host country. 

  • The flight. Be sure to order a vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free/etc. meal before arriving at the airport. Your meal might not be as appealing as the other passengers, but hey, you get it first and airline food isn’t particularly tasty to anyone!  You can always pack snacks (make sure the bag is sealed) just in case the food is truly terrible. (And for when you are going from the airport to your dorm/apartment.) Also you may have complications with taking snacks into your host country, as many have strict rules on what you can and cannot take through customs. 
  • Research.  Do some general background research on the eating habits of your host country. How do they cook their food? What do the locals normally eat? If you are a vegetarian, it might be a good idea to research the history of meat eating.  Meat can often be considered a delicacy, and refusing to eat it could potentially come across as rude. (We will explain how to politely say no in the next section).
  • Language acquisition. Explaining why you do not want to order chicken wings with your buddies as appetizer can be difficult enough in English. Never mind explaining in Italian to the waiter that you would prefer a salad over a classic Italian dish.  Learning another language is no easy task, but it would be extremely helpful for you to learn how to explain your dietary restrictions in the local language.  If explaining why you cannot eat certain foods is too hard at first, learn how to say what you can eat and ask specifically for those dishes. 
  • Allergy Cards. Learning a new language is often full of mistakes and misunderstandings as you begin to find ways to communicate. But allergies might be the one area where you should have a ‘cheat sheet’ in the form of pre made card(s) with translations of your allergy restrictions.  There a few websites where you can order a card with English and a selected foreign language on either side of the card explaining your specific allergy. This way, the likelihood of a miscommunication will be lessened. Note: you often have to pay for the cards. 


http://www.triumphdining.com/products/gluten-free-dining-cards  (This is a particularly good website full of information on how to eat with a gluten allergy, and they offer the card making service.) 

If neither of these websites have your allergy or language specific information, doing a google search should take you in the right direction. 

  • Medical Bracelets.  You can also have medical bracelets made with the help of your medical provider explaining your dietary issues. This could be used in the unfortunate event that you’ve lost the ability to communicate and explain what is happening to you. 
  • Worst Case Scenario.  Even if you take all the precautionary measures possible, there is still a chance your food can cross paths with something you are highly allergic to.  In the unfortunate event that you do consume something that causes an allergic reaction, have all the necessary medical provider information close to you. This includes the fax numbers of your home doctor, local hospitals in your host country, and cards explaining your condition in the local language. Having both contact information, the two can communicate any necessary information. You can locate the contact information for your country specific hospitals by visiting the US embassy website for that country. 


  • Medication. Prepare enough medication for your specific allergy. You do not want to have a reaction in a foreign country without the proper medication that you know works. It is also a good idea to find somebody who you can trust in your group of friends that is willing to administer the medication if you are unable to. 

There is a lot to prepare for a study abroad experience, we know. But please be sure to do your research and obtain the necessary materials for any dietary restrictions. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress when you do arrive!


So, you have researched the local cuisine and learned how to ask for lasagna without meat sauce. Now what? Well, there are few things to keep in mind once you’ve arrived in your host country as you will want to stay on top of your eating habits. 

  • Kitchens! Most likely, there will be a kitchen in your dorm or apartment building. Use this to your advantage. Cooking your own food means you have complete control over what goes into the meal. And doing your own shopping can be a great way to make new friends or learn about local cuisines! (Note, if you are a vegetarian for reasons other than dietary, or if you have a weak stomach, try to avoid the meat section of a market or grocery store. Meat will likely be hanging bare in the market and not on  a Styrofoam plate with saran wrap as you may be accustomed.)
  • In the Restaurant. When you do find yourself dining in a restaurant, remember to be polite in requesting special dishes. Depending on where you are, the reason for restriction might be completely foreign to the staff on hand. It can be frustrating to explain over and over again, but worth it if the meal is what you need. If the staff seems offended, you can offer a compliment to their dishes but reason that you will be sick if you eat it.  (Explaining the morality of your lifestyle choices might take a little longer explanation because again, the concept could be completely foreign to them.)  There is no guarantee that waiters/waitresses will be polite or happy to help you. But if you are respectful to their service, often they will be respectful in return. Always thank them for their accommodation as such service is not always expected in countries other than the United States. 
  • “No Meat”. Requesting your food to have no meat in the dish does not necessarily mean ‘no fish’, no ‘blood’, and ‘no lard’. Be specific! 
  • Markets and Grocery Stores.  Since you’ve done your research and know which local foods you can and cannot eat, stopping by a grocery store or market for snacks would be a great idea. Having back up snacks in your room after the rare occasion that a restaurant cannot accommodate you, will be glorious to your growling tummy. And if you plan on traveling in country (or to neighboring countries) having these snacks will come in handy. 
  • Hotels. If you are planning to travel while abroad, there are now a few hotels in limited countries with allergy friendly hotels. http://www.allergyfriendlyhotels.com/

*Remember to research your allergy/dietary specific information to be as thorough in your preparation as possible. Here is additional helpful website for gluten-free eating: 


Traveling and living abroad with dietary needs can be challenging even for the seasoned traveler. But it is absolutely do-able if you plan ahead and prepare yourself appropriately. Hopefully these tips will help you to have a healthy and rewarding experience throughout your journey abroad! 

Photos by Athena student alums Jessica Fix and Kate Bispham


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