Traveling while on an elimination diet like the Autoimmune Protocol can be challenging at best. In this series, I will be covering three areas of travel with AIP: road trips, plane trips, and international trips. (If you are more interested in the first two, head on over to the Road Trip Guide or the Plane Travel Guide!).
Part 3: International Travel
This article will serve as a resource for those who are taking a leap and traveling internationally. Depending on where you live and how you’ll be traveling (by car or by plane), you’ll want to check out the previous guides for the foundations of planning your travels. This article will add on some extra considerations for when you are leaving your home country.
Why can international travel be difficult for those with autoimmune disease?
A change in diet. Maintaining a restricted diet like The Autoimmune Protocol, even with some reintroductions, can be difficult at home… where you have all the tools you need and know where to access safe ingredients. That all changes when you leave your home country. Even if you can find compliant ingredients and meals while abroad, your diet is likely to be very different from what you are used to. Part of traveling to another country is getting the experience of different food cultures and ingredients – which for most people is part of the fun, but adds another whole layer to those who are on a restricted diet.
Language or cultural barriers. Not only will the ingredients you do (or don’t!) have access to impact your travel diet, you will also have to take into consideration any language barriers to clearly communicating your needs. Food cultures are also unique around the world, and this will definitely impact how easy it is for you to continue following your routines while traveling.
Increased stress. Being exposed to new languages, cultures, situations, foods, different levels of physical activity, or not being in your home space is likely to increase your stress load. One of the trade-offs of expanding your worldview and experiencing new things through travel is learning how to manage this with an autoimmune body that can often be more sensitive to these dietary and environmental stressors than usual.
This list isn’t meant to convince you not to travel internationally, but to help you identify some of the areas where you’ll want to pay special attention during the early planning stages of a trip. By figuring out what is realistic for you and your body, you will be best prepared to set yourself up for success!
Planning your trip
In addition to the information about accommodations, what to pack, and eating out in my article about Plane Travel, I’d like to highlight some areas that should be addressed in the earliest planning stages of an international trip:
What location should I choose? There are a few things you should think of when you are selecting a location. They are as follows:
- How long will it take to get there? How far from home will your destination be, and how long will your travel time be to get there? Even relatively “close” destinations can have long travel times depending on accessibility, such as needing to take a train or bus to a remote location.
- What will the language barrier be like? You might choose to travel to a country where they speak your language so that communicating is easy. Or, you might choose a country with a different language, but where your language is spoken by many people (this is very common with English). Some places the language barrier might be extreme – this means you would be unlikely to find people who speak your language, and you would have to rely on translation apps and/or guides to get you through.
- Will you have any help navigating this new experience? This could come in the form of a travel partner who has experience with the language or country you are visiting, having a friend or family member that lives in the location you are visiting, or hiring a guide or company to help you. Having a “local” who can give you some tips on places to stay, activities to do, transportation, and most importantly navigate the food scene in that area can be incredibly helpful.
- What is the food culture like in the country I’m interested in visiting? One of the first things I consider is if the city or country has gluten-free options available in grocery stores, or even restaurants. Are quality meats, fish, and/or fresh fruits and vegetables readily available?
Next, I thought I would share some of the countries I’ve travelled to since my Autoimmune Protocol elimination and reintroduction, ranked best to last (in my personal opinion, of course!).
- Australia – I ranked this country first because not only do they have great options for gluten, dairy, and allergen-free eating out at restaurants in many major cities, but they have excellent farmer’s markets and natural grocery stores selling anything you would need to prepare yourself meals. I fell in love with the farm-to-table and slow-food restaurants in Australia! (I’ve visited Sydney, Byron Bay, and Brisbane).
- Canada – While I’ve found the restaurants in the places I’ve visited in Canada to be a little less accommodating than Australia, they have excellent farmer’s markets and natural grocery stores. (I’ve visited Vancouver).
- Sweden – I found excellent restaurants with English menus and clear labelling in Sweden, even in smaller towns. The health food stores have most of the items you’d want at home – ferments and even some allergen-free convenience items. (I’ve visited Stockholm and Visby).
- New Zealand – I found the South Island to have very little in the way of restaurants that were accommodating to food allergies, but there is plenty of great meat and produce if you know which towns to stop in. In the North Island I found some restaurants that could cater to gluten and dairy free and more grocery options. (I’ve visited all the major cities on the South Island, as well as Auckland on the North Island).
- Mexico – I found it a little trickier to find good meat and produce to cook for myself where I visited in Mexico, but I did find some restaurants offering allergen-free meals. Having some knowledge of Spanish really helps to communicate when ordering, especially when trying to avoid more specific ingredients like nightshades. I speak some Spanish so I have a little leg up here. (I’ve visited Tulum).
- France – I found some great gluten-free restaurants in France, and their food culture is just incredible. I ranked them a little lower since it doesn’t translate very well to AIP unless you have some major reintroductions – especially dairy. When you find a restaurant that handles food sensitivities though, they give it their best shot! (I’ve visited Paris and Chamonix).
- Argentina – While I didn’t find too many gluten or dairy-free dedicated restaurants here, the chefs and waiters have been some of the most accommodating to make modifications. You won’t find the most amazing produce, but Argentina is known for their meat and just about any restaurant can serve you plain-cooked meat cooked “a la parilla” (on the grill) with a side salad. (I’ve visited Buenos Aires and Bariloche).
- Austria – One major benefit to visiting Austria as a person with food allergies is that it is mandatory for all allergens to be labelled at every restaurant, and in much detail (about 10 allergens). Be cautious though as these don’t always indicate cross-contamination, especially with gluten. I did find a couple of gluten-free restaurants, and their grocery stores aren’t amazing, but workable. (I’ve visited Innsbruck, Salzburg, and Vienna).
- Iceland – Food in this country was some of the most expensive in my travels, and not the highest quality. Because of the location, the produce is not as fresh or vibrant (much is grown hydroponically). I did find some restaurants that could accommodate allergen-free meals in the major city, but none that were strictly gluten-free. (I’ve visited Reykjavik and some smaller surrounding cities).
- Switzerland – The last country on my list may come as a surprise, but I found this the most difficult so far to find good food. Not only was food shockingly expensive (especially restaurants but meat and produce as well), but I had a hard time finding quality produce. The only allergen-free food available, besides raw ingredients, was highly processed. I couldn’t find a single restaurant that could accommodate me in the towns I visited, so I cooked for my entire trip. Based on my research this was expected, but I would have loved a break for at least one or two meals! If you have reintroduced dairy, especially butter and/or cheese, you might have an easier time. (I’ve visited Geneva, Zermatt, and Chur).
You’ll notice the countries I’ve visited have a theme – if they aren’t specifically English-speaking, they speak Spanish (which is a language I am familiar enough with) or they are known for having a high-amount of English-speakers in major cities.
I would love to get outside of my comfort zone and visit some other areas, especially Southeast Asia, but I have to be honest I am worried about the language barrier as it relates to communicating my food needs!
What to pack, plane food options, and other tips
In my last article on plane travel, I covered the items I always pack when flying, what food options can be brought on the plane, and some tips to stay healthy and manage inflammation while traveling. Be sure to give that a read if you are interested in those tips, as they definitely apply to international travel, but I didn’t want to duplicate the information here.
The only additional information I’d like to share related to international travel is that if you are packing food, you need to be mindful of customs restrictions on food in the country you will be visiting. As long as you eat all of your food on the plane ride there, you can bring fruit and meat, but some countries will want you to dispose or declare certain food items when you arrive, even in checked baggage. If you plan on bringing some bulk food items, like a box of Epic Bars with you, do your diligence ahead of time to see if they will allow you to bring them into the country.
Shopping and cooking in another country
Even though there are many places to travel featuring allergen-free or accommodating restaurants, I’ve never found that perfect location where I don’t need to do any of my own cooking. Because of this, just like when traveling in the US, I rent apartments on AirBnB so that I can have a space to prepare my food.
Here are some tips to shopping and cooking in another country:
- Do your research! Just like you would do a search for gluten and allergen-free restaurants, look for places to shop for groceries close to where you will be staying. Online reviews can help you figure out what types of products certain stores specialize in, hours, and a preview of what you might expect there.
- Make sure your accommodation has basic cooking tools. I have found many AirBnB apartments to be seriously lacking in the cookware department, even though they have listed that they provide kitchen tools (it is pretty serious when you are missing items like a knife or a cutting board, which has happened to me before). The minimum tools I look for are a skillet, knife, large bowl, stirring spoon, and cutting board. A bonus is if they have some roasting dishes.
- If traveling to a country with a language barrier, educate yourself about ingredients. At the minimum, you should have a list on your phone or printed out with the common names for all the ingredients you avoid to reference when looking at food labels or when talking to servers. When in doubt, ask for help, or stick to foods without labels, like meat or produce.
- This is much, much easier with some key reintroductions. I have not been able to reintroduce dairy, and I bet it would be much easier to eat abroad if I had. I have been able to reintroduce eggs, some gluten-free grains, nuts, seeds, and some nightshades, which all make cooking and eating out while abroad much easier.
Here is a list of items I usually get to cook at rentals:
- Meat to cook (ground beef, chicken thighs, salmon fillet, etc.)
- Easy cured protein options (prosciutto, smoked salmon, etc.)
- Compliant rotisserie chicken (check ingredients carefully here)
- Pre-washed lettuce/greens
- Sauerkraut or fermented vegetables
- Fresh fruit
- Veggies for cooking (carrots, kale, zucchini etc.)
I don’t like to worry too much about making complex recipes when I travel – I stick to the basics, a meat option, some veggies, and some fermented veggies/beverage to round things out. I much prefer spending my time exploring!
One of the things I do when planning international trips is make myself a Google Map with the following information tagged and saved:
- Transportation – airports, bus, and train stations I’ll need to go through during travel.
- Restaurants – I color code these into two categories, one color for fully GF/allergen-free and another for accommodating but not 100% dedicated with notes for later helping me decide where to go in the moment.
- Grocery stores – I color code these into two categories, one color for health food stores and another for regular grocery stores.
- Accommodation – I add the location(s) I’ll be staying so I can visualize how close they are to everything else.
- Attractions – places to visit and things to do.
I find this layer of planning helps me mentally get organized and relieves a lot of the stressful thoughts of “will I be able to eat when I visit X”? Then, when I arrive, all I have to do is open up Google Maps on my phone, and I can see how far different places are to my current location and have easy access to addresses, phone numbers, and transit directions if needed. I like to leave some decision-making to “in the moment,” because that is part of the fun of traveling, but I think it causes me too much anxiety not to have a “library” of information to access when I need to. That way I can be organized and spontaneous at the same time!
I hope this article has helped open your mind to the possibilities of international travel while on a restricted diet. I’ve always loved international travel, and had to take five years off during my health crisis and recovery. Even when I started traveling more by road and by plane, I was pretty stressed about planning an international trip. It has been completely worth it to overcome that stress with some good planning to visit some beautiful and interesting places around the world.
Have you been anywhere outside of the US that is particularly AIP-friendly? Let me know in the comments!