Cultural Experience | Cape Town

Special Diets Abroad

Don’t let dietary restrictions hold you back 

After a long streak of unexplained illnesses and countless doctors appointments throughout my senior year of high school, I finally discovered the very simple cause of most of my discomforts: a long list of dietary intolerances and allergies.

For anyone with dietary restrictions, don’t feel the need to downplay these issues. Food is a major part of our lives. It’s important to our health, our social life and our happiness. I personally understand the fear of getting sick or missing out on experiences because I’m worried about not being able to find anything I can eat. However, it’s completely possible to travel abroad with dietary restrictions and remain healthy and happy while doing so.

After choosing your study abroad provider and location, get in touch with your program director. They will most likely be more than happy to help you in any way possible. My CIEE program director asked me to provide him with every dietary choice and restriction he should be aware of. Any food provided through the program was assured to meet these guidelines.

You can also look into what food is provided through the university’s dining halls and meal plans. If you are living in dorm-style housing, it is important to make sure there is food available through the university that falls within your guidelines. If there is an option to live in apartment-style housing or any type of housing where a kitchen would be available to you, it would be the best choice to assure you can control what you are eating down to every individual ingredient.

Research the food culture of the area you’ll be studying in. You might even be able to find menus for a few restaurants and cafes in town. Also look for grocery stores or fresh food markets near where you’ll be living. Again, your program director is usually living in your study abroad location and can be a big help in finding these resources.

South Africa food image

A friend at our favorite restaurant, Schoon De Companje, in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

I have numerous intolerances related to preserved and processed foods, but was incredibly surprised to find that other countries generally produce and sell much more natural foods. I left the United States fearing I wouldn’t be able to eat anything abroad and wondering how I’d stay healthy or explain all of my strange intolerances and allergies every time I went out to eat with new friends, but I actually ended up gaining weight while abroad as I could find more to eat there than I could here.

One of the biggest obstacles I encountered was that of leaving my vegetarian lifestyle behind while studying in South Africa. I had informed my program director that I was vegetarian, arrangements were made to make sure this dietary choice could be followed, but after moving into my apartment a few weeks into the semester and being exposed to braais, which are closest to what we consider a barbeque, meat slowly started to creep back into my diet. This change was one of a lack of self control rather than a necessity, but I found braais were such a big part of social interaction there that it was a change I was willing to make to benefit my time abroad.

braai image

A friend preparing to braai at West Coast National Park in South Africa.

There are a few staple foods here that might not be as easy to find in your study abroad country. For example, energy bars, sports drinks such as Gatorade, protein bars and various meat substitutes were difficult items for me to find at local grocery stores. I packed some of these items in my suitcase (powdered forms of Gatorade and Powerade that just need to be mixed into water are a good option) as well as a few of my other favorite snacks. There will of course be different brands of products that you aren’t as familiar with as well as different names for many things, but this will only take a little getting used to.

In addition, any medications, whether prescribed or over the counter, that treat any dietary issues should also be packed in your suitcase or carry on. These medications, such as Lactaid for those who are lactose intolerant as well as products like Tums that aid in digestion, are not always easily found in other countries. You’ll feel much more comfortable and prepared if you bring any of these things along.

It may take a little extra effort to plan for your time abroad if you have any type of specialized diet, but it should definitely not be something that holds you back from pursuing studying abroad. There are many resources to assure you can plan around any dietary restrictions you have. You might even find even healthier diet options abroad as I did.

So do your research, reach out to your provider or program director before you leave, and don’t be afraid to try new things!

Special Diets Abroad


Alexandria Polanosky

Ohio University | 8 stories

Alexandria attends Ohio University in Athens, Ohio and is currently studying Photojournalism with a specialization in Environmental Studies. Alexandria is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After recently studying for a semester in South Africa, Alexandria's horizons have expanded and she has come to find there is so much more to the world than the small, cozy college town of Athens. Though her experience abroad was wonderful, she strives to acknowledge the beauty that can be found every day no matter where you find yourself. You can find her travel blog at

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