One of the best parts of traveling anywhere is tasting new flavors of local food and drink. Our human need to eat and gather around meals manifests in diverse, beautiful and interesting ways all over the globe. Yet while the connections gained around cooking and sharing meals are vital aspects of a cultural experience, they are also a source of stress for those of us with food allergies or who must follow a restricted diet for medical reasons.
As a student with celiac disease who must maintain a strict gluten free diet, it has been a challenge to balance cultural engagement with my dietary restrictions. I’ll never get to have the traditional Irish experience of drinking a Guinness in a pub, nor will I get to try authentic soda bread or fish and chips. Luckily, there’s far more to Irish culture than food (it’s probably the least exciting part of Ireland), and in being careful with my diet I’ve been healthy enough to enjoy many nights of traditional music, birthday parties, pub quizzes, tractor runs, céilí dancing and family dinners.
Bringing Your Healthy Habits Abroad
I was diagnosed with celiac disease in September of 2017 after months of debilitating illness. In the year and a half since I’ve learned how to live gluten-free through a great deal of trial and painful error. In the States, Aldi became my food oasis, and I started allocating an hour a day for meal prep. I became known as “snack attack” at school and work because I always had a bag of food around to keep away the terrible “hanger” episodes that would result from more than three hours without food.
In preparing for Ireland, I was intentional about planning for a study abroad experience that would work with my gluten-free diet. One of the best parts of working with IFSA has been the medical counseling I received prior to my trip. Before I even landed I had been informed of the grocery stores with the best allergy friendly sections (Tesco and Aldi). I have also received amazing feedback and support from the dining staff at my college, and though I cannot eat most of what they serve, gluten-free items are always ending up on my desk.
“Coeliac” challenges in Ireland
Happily for me, Ireland has many gluten-free options thanks to the high incidence of individuals with celiac disease (spelled “coeliac” here). Even more exciting was my discovery that the EU recently began to enforce strict allergy guidelines with all processed foods. The 14 most common food allergies must be distinctly labeled on all packaging and restaurants are required to note when any dish contains an allergen. Despite the ease of identifying gluten-containing foods, I haven’t been symptom-free. Sharing dishes, surfaces and appliances with fourteen other students has caused contamination accidents and I’ve learned the difference between “wheat-free” and “gluten-free” (which is not a distinction made in the U.S.).
In the tiny town where my campus is located there is only one small, pricey market with very limited options, so I’ve started stocking up on school trips to towns with larger grocery stores. I spend a lot of time scouring Pinterest for Irish-inspired gluten-free recipes and meal plan ahead of grocery trips. Instead of buying a lot of prepared gluten-free snacks, the majority of my cart consists of basics like lentils, rice, meat, frozen fruits and vegetables and produce. Although this strategy requires a great deal of cooking, it is cheaper and my food stretches farther. Since local produce is typically less expensive and healthier I’ve also incorporated Irish grown foods like cabbage and leek into my diet for the first time.
Living Abroad with Multiple Food Allergies: Robbie’s Story
One of my classmates, a graduate student named Robbie Lawrence, has several food allergies, and she notes that while gluten-free options are easier to find and allergy warnings are clearer in Ireland, access to other allergy-friendly foods is very limited. Robbie can’t eat gluten, lactose, sucrose, pork or yeast, so she has to spend a lot of time preparing and packing meals. When I asked her about studying abroad with food allergies, Robbie didn’t hesitate to state the limitations she faces.
“Honestly? I’m tired of talking about my allergies. It gets old having to reject things all the time. It definitely impacts my social life.” Like many other places in the world, food and drink are gifts in Ireland, and it can be awkward to decline invitations.
However, Robbie was clear about the necessity of advocating for yourself when you have food allergies, something I’ve found difficult but incredibly important. While it can feel high-maintenance, vocalizing my need to be gluten-free is not only perfectly acceptable, it’s my responsibility. I pack my meals and always have emergency snacks. If someone comments on the absurd amount of food or water I require I am happy to educate them on the lower nutritional value of gluten-free food and the way celiac disease impacts your metabolism. Preparedness is key, but as Robbie notes it’s also important to remind those around you that it isn’t their job to cook for you.
“People need to understand that while it’s really nice to offer to feed me, even if they are careful they’re probably going to put something in there I can’t have and then I’m going to get sick. And then I’ll be angry.” Social niceties aside, it’s just not worth it to accept food that could cause an allergy flare. Eating an allergy-friendly diet isn’t easy whether you’re at home or abroad. However, with planning, assertiveness and care, it is very possible to live abroad with food allergies, especially in Ireland and other EU countries. The best news? Having limited options for eating out makes cooking and meal prep your only option, so not only will you probably eat healthier, you’ll save a lot of money that you can spend on travel instead of late-night takeout.
Laura Kennedy is an Art Therapy major at Avila University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the Burren College of Art in Ireland in Spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.