After 50 years of working, I was ready to break away from the desk and begin my dream of traveling the world.
Two weeks after my retirement, however, I was diagnosed with a rare and incurable disease called Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD). It wasn’t the diagnosis that would prevent me from traveling, although the pain involved would be a hindrance. It was the restricted, low-sodium diet that I was put on.
At first, I thought, “How difficult could that be?” Just cut it down. Then, I realized just how much salt is in, well, everything. I started thinking about travel and what that would mean in terms of savoring the world’s culinary delights. I mean, how in the world could anyone travel and enjoy the cuisine of a region on a restricted diet?
Turns out, I was wrong. It is easier than I thought, but it requires plenty of pre-planning and discipline. With a little advice from my own dietician, Katie Reese MS RDN LD, we’ve come up with eight tips to help you make the proper dietary decisions while not hindering your adventures.
Note: Please remember that everybody’s situation is different. Consult your doctor about implementing any of these tips.
1. Research Your Destination
The main reason we all travel is to discover and learn about different regions in our own country, new and exotic countries, their people, and cultures. Half the fun of traveling is planning the adventure. That planning should not only include researching the attractions and activities you want to participate in, but also the local cuisine.
As Katie tells us, “Educate yourselves on the common ingredients and cooking techniques [in the area you plan to visit.] Even better, reach out to travel agents or people you may know that have traveled to the location you are planning to go and get their feedback.”
Don’t forget to work with your registered dietitian prior to your trip to assist you with your planning. They can help do some of the research for you.
One of the keys to traveling with a restrictive diet is to try to avoid making quick decisions when choosing where to eat. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but once again, a little pre-planning helps to alleviate the stress of trying to figure it out on the road.
Whenever possible, make reservations at restaurants in advance and ask if they can accommodate your specific dietary needs. Many restaurants are happy to leave out certain ingredients or make small adjustments when preparing dishes on their menu.
Katie stresses that asking a few key questions about the ingredients and preparation method can be very helpful and educational.
“Also, choose meals that have more whole food ingredients,” she says. “That can take away the uncertainty of the preparation method and help you feel more confident in your choices.”
If you are doing some long-distance traveling on long-distance flights with meal options, check ahead of time with the airline and find out what specialized options are available. You will be surprised to find that most airlines offer meals suitable for restricted diets and some food allergies. These need to be ordered ahead of time.
Pro Tip: In the end, even with all of the pre-planning you have done, things happen and it is best to consider obtaining travel insurance. Most insurance companies will cover any food-related health issues on your trip.
3. Allergy And Diet Restriction Cards
Carrying an allergy or diet restriction card with you makes it easy to communicate your dietary needs at restaurants when you travel.
A dietary restriction or allergy card is simply a pocket-sized card that lists any food allergies or restrictions you may have. Any registered dietician will be able to help you obtain one but they are easy enough to create yourself.
There are plenty of online resources that have templates for this type of card including the nonprofit allergy website FARE, where you can download a template in multiple languages, fill out your information, print it out, then carry it with you.
Be sure to carry several cards with you so you have backups, just in case. Keeping those that prepare your meals informed about specific needs can make for a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
4. Learn Key Phrases
In addition to an allergy and diet restriction card in the specific language of the region you are traveling to, if traveling abroad, take the time to learn a few key phrases that describe your restriction in the country’s language. You don’t need to hold a conversation. Learn enough to be able to relate your dietary needs.
5. Pack Snacks
It’s one thing to make all the plans for when you arrive at your destination, but what about the trip there on long drives or airline flights? The key is to carry plenty of snacks.
Katie emphasizes how important snacks can be.
“Relying on snacks available in convenience stores or airports can lead to unhealthy choices and also be a more costly option,” she explains. “By having readily available options, you are less likely to reach for items on the go.”
The key is to have a good variety of snacks on hand, of course, tailored to your specific diet — individual bags of popcorn or crackers, trail mix, dried fruit, etc. For a more filling option — again, modified to your own special needs — opt for small pouches of Nutter Butters paired with sealed bags of pre-cut fruit or an individually wrapped piece of natural cheese.
There are always plenty of beverage choices when flying, but keep in mind that too many carbonated beverages can lead to abdominal discomfort and excess alcohol and caffeine can dehydrate you.
6. Go Vegetarian
Consider eating a vegetarian diet while on the road and seek out restaurants with a vegetarian menu. Many times, this will take the guesswork out of the process. But still be sure to read the menu and ask questions.
7. Keep Your Eyes Open
Once you get to your destination and that restaurant you have been dying to try, when your order arrives, give it a once-over. Things do slip by in the kitchen unintentionally, but it happens. Make sure there are no hidden croutons, unnamed sauces, or anything that looks suspicious that could upend your diet and ruin your vacation. And don’t be afraid to point it out. Most restaurants will gladly correct the error.
The Bottom Line: Be Flexible
Remember, you are planning an adventure to explore and experience the world around you, so be flexible. If you are able and your diet allows a little leeway, allow yourself some freedom to enjoy at least one great meal. On that day, adjust your other meals accordingly to compensate.
The bottom line is not to let your dietary restrictions hinder you from exploring the world. Plan ahead and enjoy!
Learn about some of our other writers’ experiences with new food choices and diets: