Dietary Restrictions Abroad

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One of the most daunting things about planning to study abroad can be the perceived difficulty of maintaining a particular lifestyle or abiding by certain restrictions for health, religious, personal, ethical, or any other reason. When entering a new culture and new place, where you might be unfamiliar with customs, unsure of what your lifestyle abroad will allow for, or even how to access to things we have access to at home, it can be daunting and scary to try to plan how to adapt.

For the past two years, I’ve been vegan. This means that I don’t consume any animal products (except honey, although some vegans also choose not to). When deciding to study abroad, I knew it would be more work to maintain a vegan lifestyle abroad than it is at home. I’d visited my family in Europe the spring before I studied abroad, and found it much more difficult to maintain my diet, not just for practical reasons (I’m able to find certain foods at home that I couldn’t in Europe), but cultural reasons as well. Although I decided on that trip to periodically “break” vegan to enjoy family recipes and typical cultural food experiences with my family, it was still difficult explaining my diet (“what do you EAT?!?!?!”) and the reasons why I chose to abide by it.

While I could choose to deviate from my diet periodically on my previous trip, many people with dietary restrictions simply can’t just choose to waver. So, when studying abroad, this needs to be something that you seriously consider.

The Czech Republic is one of the most meat-eating countries in the world. I knew this going in, but I decided to make a plan for how to deal with this rather than go somewhere that I wasn’t as excited about going to.  If you find yourself drawn to a country that won’t easily align with your dietary lifestyle, you have to choose whether you can make it work, or if you’d rather go somewhere safer.

Personally, I’m used to cooking my own food. I knew that as long as I had access to a kitchen, I would be fine. If you know that the only way you’ll be able to stick to your requirements is if you do the majority of your own cooking, I recommend studying somewhere where you live in an apartment or a dorm with a kitchen. Homestays can be accommodating (my sister’s host family is wonderfully supportive and accommodating of her veganism, even when they eat meals together), but it’s a toss up; there’s no way to know if your family will be willing to work with your restrictions.

(If you can’t cook, learn how to do so. The first time I heard someone give this advice I scoffed, because I’ve been cooking with my family for as long as I can remember, but some people genuinely do not know how to cook. If this is the case for you, learn a few basic recipes that you know you like, and your skills will grow with time.)

When eating out, oftentimes, depending on the size of your city, there are many different food-ethnicity options. Go for something that you know lends itself to your diet. If you’re not somewhere that is naturally accommodating, sometimes it’s best to go with whatever on the menu that works (a salad, fries, other basic, usually not-very-substantial options), and eat before you go or after you get back. If you’re there for the company, it’s no big deal to skirt by with something basic, anyway!

In general, try to make your life as easy as possible by making things yourself. You are the most trustworthy person you know, so make a plan and keep things simple.

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