Before you get gooey-eyed, I haven’t actually given up bread altogether. But mostly I have, thanks in large part to a doctor’s diagnosis last summer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I should probably start by saying how much I love food. I mean, not to a dangerous degree, but definitely to an adventurous degree. As a traveler, perhaps my favorite part of arriving somewhere new is trying the local food. I would not consider myself a foodie, as I don’t know how to cook or know much about the ins and outs of the dishes, I just know what I like. And I will try anything. Case in point is the following photo, which shows me eating a fried scorpion at Beijing’s Donghuamen Night Market, which is notorious for selling crazy things like starfish and insects.
Recalling back to summer of 2010, I found myself back in my hometown, in a doctor’s office, fighting back tears as I was told I had “Insulin Resistance”, otherwise known as pre-Type 2 Diabetes. Wonderful. All of my favorite things: bread, pasta, beer and noodles, all went out the window in that single doctor’s visit.
Fast forward to now, and here I am, six months later, living in Prague and battling my diet every single day.
Okay, maybe not every single day, but it certainly hasn’t been easy to transition off of sugar and refined carbs, especially while adjusting to life in the Land of Bread and Beer. So how did I (do I) do it?
Traveling on a special diet certainly isn’t easy but it also isn’t impossible – nowhere near impossible. One of the first things I had to do was remember that there are people on special diets in every country, and that yes, there are diabetics in Prague. Lots of them. So many, in fact, that there are special sections of the supermarkets with dedicated dia (diabetic-friendly) foods.
Whether you’re vegetarian, celiac or lactose intolerant, you can still travel. Here are a few tips for getting around the world while sticking to your nutritional needs.
Keeping it diet-friendly
- Know your needs and limits. This is the first trick: know what you can and can’t eat and know exactly what those things are and dishes that they are typically associated with around the world.
- Translate, translate, translate. Learn country-specific words for your dietary needs, either by keeping a list (if you’re traveling around) or memorizing them (if you’re living abroad).
- Be menu-savvy. How? Well, you’ve gotta read between the lines – if you can’t have pasta, you’ve gotta know the names of different pastas. And if you’re allergic to nuts, you might consider asking the waitstaff if there are nuts in the dish.
- When in doubt, refrain. If you don’t know what’s in it, you probably better not eat it, just to be on the safe side. Is that limiting? Yes, of course. But living with a diet is not an easy thing!
- Get label-savvy. This is especially important if you’re living abroad. I’ve learned to recognize the Czech words for things like “sugar”, “glucose” “whole wheat” and so on, which allows me to read labels of products in the store. This method has been a large part of my success, and I’ve found a surprising number of foods that I can eat in Czech grocery stores.
- Alert the airlines. When traveling by air, most airlines offer special meals to cater to specific dietary needs. Be sure to alert the airline when you make your reservation or check-in at the airport so that you get a meal you can eat.
- Carry food with you. Overnight train rides, hostel stays and exotic treks are places you’ll need to prepare food in advance. Fruits and vegetables are easy to carry and don’t spoil too easily. Likewise, a few packaged dry goods can be helpful for vegetarians who are worried about meat dishes.
- Cook for yourself. If you’re living abroad, this should be no problem so long as you learn to read labels. If you’re traveling, consider staying in hostels or apartments with self-cater kitchens where you can cook your own meals, rather than venturing into the unknown of a restaurant.
- Be open minded. Living with a special diet means learning to eat new things and give up things you might want to try. However, learning about the local diet can also be very eye-opening, and you might find that there are some fantastic local foods that you can, in fact, eat, if you just ask.
- Don’t be crazy limited. Unless you have a lethal allergy, you might be able to get away with tiny tastes of foods that you’re interested in, so long as you don’t go overboard. I’ve learned that I can have a Czech beer now and again, but I know I can’t drink it like the locals.
For me, everyday is still a work in progress. I have to think about my condition each time I pass one of those gorgeous Czech pastries or see my friends downing sloppy, gorgeous pints of Pilsner. But at the end of the day, it’s all about balance, and I have to remind myself that I can still eat Prague sausages and Chinese hot pot – two of the world’s most fantastic treats.