How to Travel With Dietary Issues

Gluten Free Icecream cone abroad

Hey Owlets,

I feel like as British people what to eat on holiday is somewhat a point of contention. As a nation we have a bit of a bad reputation for knowing what we like and sticking with it; there’s obviously a reason why there’s so many McDonalds’ restaurants in tourist hotspots around the world. However, if you’re one of those people that struggles with food allergies then eating anything abroad can feel incredibly daunting, even if you stick to the typical bland foods. As a travel obsessive I’ve always been one of those people that likes to visit new places and try to local cuisine. 

Two years ago I discovered that the reason I’ve always been ill growing up was due to a gluten intolerance, and a big part of my holiday suddenly because a minefield; when I was on a cruise it was just easier to eat on the ship in the morning then skip lunch or just bring my own snacks, which meant I missed out on one of the best ways to experience local culture. Since finding out I can’t eat gluten I’ve started to get more confident in trying to experience local cuisines, so I wanted to share my experiences in the most visited countries, as well as share some tips that could help you on your next holiday. Obviously my experiences are all going to be from someone who doesn’t eat gluten, but I’ll try to mention what I’ve noticed of other allergens too.

Gluten Free Waffles in Spain

Spain

Spain is one of my favourite countries for being gluten free - in general Spanish people are pretty switched on when it comes to allergies, provided you stick to either touristy areas or big cities. When I was planning my trip to Barcelona I found 3 entirely gluten free cafes (that also claimed to be suitable for coeliacs) within a few minutes walk from our hotel. In addition to this I found loads of cafes that had separate GF menus and pretty much every restaurant I looked at had options that catered for people with allergies to gluten or dairy, as well as a wealth of vegetarian and vegan food.

Having said that, Spain can be a little hit or miss - in most cities you’ll be able to find a few places to eat, but Vigo in North Eastern Spain was one of the worst places I’ve visited. During my trip I ran into an upmarket cafe to dodge a sudden rainstorm, and was presented a free mini croissant with my coffee. I thanked the waiter but explained that I couldn’t eat it, and I might as well have been speaking English because the concept of not eating gluten was totally lost on him. Having said that, I did find a totally gluten free ice cream parlour later that same day that also made gluten free waffles, and they even changed gloves, opened a new tub of icecream and used different utensils & equipment to avoid any cross-contamination. 

At the end of the day if you’re in a part of Spain that really doesn’t understand not being able to eat gluten then you can always fall back on McDonalds because they cater to gluten free diets nationwide, as well as in the Canary Islands. I know it’s not ideal but at least you know you’re not going to starve.

For restaurants that are accredited as safe for coeliacs, see the Spanish Federation of Coeliac Associations. You can also print out this card to show at restaurants in Spain.

If you’re travelling in Spain with dietary requirements, here are a few useful phrases:

"Soy allergico a…." (pronounced Soy aller-hicko a)
I am allergic to


Lecheria (Lech-air-ea)
Dairy


Gluten (same pronunciation as English)
Gluten


"Yo no como…" (comm-o)
I don't eat (obviously don't use this if you're actually allergic!)


"Soy Vegana/o"
I'm vegan (vegano for men, vegana for women)


"Soy vegetariana/o"
I'm vegetarian


Gluten Free Icecream in Portugal

Portugal 

Despite sharing a boarder with Spain, it seems that any gluten free food was denied entry because Portugal is one of the worst countries I’ve visited in terms of catering to different dietary requirements. When I travel I expect to be able to find something in a big city and struggle in less touristy areas, but even in the capital I found myself going hungry every day! I’m used to doing a bit of research before I visit anywhere new but even with that I was struggling to find anything. One of the cafes I found served one gluten free cake so labelled themselves as gluten free on Google to attract more customers, another cafe said they had gluten free options but there was actually wheat in it - how that counts as gluten free I have no idea! I’m assuming that they were just trying their best to accommodate people, but mis-labelling their products could actually be dangerous. 

Since I last visited a new cafe has opened up that claims to be 100% gluten free and vegan, but it only sells cakes and bread so it’s still not an option for a meal. Lisbon is a beautiful city that’s unique in the fact that pretty much everywhere in the city centre is an independent business - great for supporting the local economy, but not so great if no one caters for your dietary needs. Like in Spain McDonalds have gluten free options across Portugal, but specifically in Lisbon you might have to travel quite a way to find one due to the city centre focusing on independent businesses. If you’re staying in Lisbon then mastering the metro will be key for you - the closest McDonalds is a short walk from Rossio Metro Stop (about 10 mins walk from Praca de Comercio). Unfortunately I can’t really comment on accommodating lactose intolerance as I wasn’t looking for that but a lot of the places that claim to be gluten free are also vegan, and veganism is much more widely catered for than gluten intolerance, so if you get stuck you could eat vegan food as by it’s nature it would be dairy free.

For restaurants that are accredited as safe for coeliacs, see the Portuguese Coeliac Association. You can also print out this card to show at restaurants in Portugal.

If you’re going to tackle eating in Portugal, here’s a few phrases you might need. Fair warning, I don’t speak Portuguese so I’m not 100% sure how to change the phrases for male/female but they’ll still understand you if you use the wrong gender and they’ll appreciate you trying:

Eu sou alérgico a (Ew so aler-jicko a)
I am allergic to



Laticínios (La-chi-seen-ios_
Dairy


Gluten (Glue-tain)
Gluten


“Eu não como"  (ill now como)
I don't eat (obviously don't use this if you're actually allergic!)


“Eu sou vegana” (ill sew veguna)
I'm vegan


"eu sou vegetariano” (ill sew vegetar-iuh-no)
I'm vegetarian


Gluten Free Macarons in France

France

France is a bit of a tale of two halves. French supermarkets have the most amazing free from aisles - they’re actually better than you can find in the UK. There’s a huge variety of products to choose from, including products that you wouldn’t be able to find gluten or dairy free in the UK and, unlike free from products in the UK, they’re not vastly more expensive than the “normal” versions. Sadly, that’s about where my praise ends. 

Like with most capital cities, dietary requirements have crept their way into Paris, although given that it’s one of the most visited cities in the world the options are surprisingly limited. If you visit anywhere outside of Paris your options are self-catering or McDonalds (you eat a lot of junk food in Europe if you don’t eat gluten!). If you walk into a restaurant anywhere else in the country, you’re pretty much wasting your time, as your menu is probably going to be “chips or salad”, and there’s not a hope in hell that it’s going to be safe for coeliacs. However, if you find yourself butchering the French language in a smaller town then you’re likely to find yourself being adopted by a local who will be more than happy to help you. 

While Paris can feel like quite a lonely place, smaller towns are the complete opposite - there’s a huge sense of community and if anyone sees you trying to speak French they’ll treat you like royalty just for trying, rather than expecting everyone to speak English (asking people to speak English without even trying to speak French is seen as rude, and not as many people speak English in smaller towns). Over the last few years I’ve spent most of my time in English or Spanish speaking countries and my French is badly showing signs of neglect. When I visited Cherbourg and had to speak French for the first time in over a year I was shocked at how rusty I was, but I found myself being adopted by an elderly French lady who helped me order, invited me to join her table and spent 2 hours having a painfully slow conversation in broken French with me - it absolutely made my trip, I really appreciated the help and I still remember her now!

Again, I can’t really speak to how dairy intolerances are handled and I saw a lot of vegetarian dishes but not many vegan options, so I think as a whole anyone with dietary requirements is likely to struggle outside of Paris.

For restaurants that are accredited as safe for coeliacs, see the French Association of Gluten Intolerance. You can also print out this card to show at restaurants in France.

If you do want to try explaining dietary requirements in France, you’ll need these phrases:

Je suis allergique à
I am allergic to



aux produits laitiers (aux instead of à. Prod-wee lat-e-airs)
Dairy products


Gluten (glue-ten. Similar pronunciation to English, but more emphasis on the second half of the word)
Gluten


Je ne mange pas… (je ne mah-nge pa)
I don't eat (obviously don't use this if you're actually allergic!)


Je suis vegan
I'm vegan


je suis végétarien 
I'm vegetarian

Gluten Free Pizza in Italy

Italy

I have a confession - I haven’t actually been to Italy since going gluten free, but I wanted to include it in my guide because having done some research it turned out to be the country that surprised me the most. You would think that the home of pizza, pasta and amazing bread would be akin to the gates of hell for gluten free people, but it’s surprisingly closer to a child in a sweet shop. 

In 2005 a short-lived nationwide coeliac screening programme was put in place - although it was phased out due to being too costly it helped to dramatically raise the profile of coeliac disease in Italy, prompting most restaurants to offer gluten free options even in less frequented regions even now. 

When you’re travelling in Italy look for the AiC logo (Italy Coeliac Association - white writing on a red background) in restaurant windows - like Coeliac UK the restaurants that display this logo have been approved as having sufficient knowledge and standards to cater to gluten free diets and minimise contamination. Even if a restaurant doesn’t carry the logo they might still be able to cater to gluten free diets, but aren’t able to totally minimise contamination so give it a miss if you’re coeliac.

Similarly, while researching I’ve found that Italians are also known for accommodating dairy free diets. Italian law states that all restaurants must clearly display any allergens in their food, but much like with gluten free products there’s an understanding and acceptance of dietary restrictions, rather than simply listing what’s in the food because they have to. Most ice cream parlours have dairy free options and cafes usually carry dairy free milk, although if you’re ordering pizza or pasta you might have to research restaurants specifically in the region you’re visiting. 

While I was in Italy in 2018 I noticed a lot of vegan and vegetarian options and even a few entirely vegan cafes, and early 2020 saw a massive surge in veganism so I can only imagine that it’s even easier to find somewhere to eat now, regardless of your dietary issues. 

For restaurants that are accredited as safe for coeliacs, see the Italian Coeliac Association. You can also print out this card to show at restaurants in France.

If you’re visiting Italy, you might need these phrases (careful - I don’t speak Italian so I found these phrases on different websites. While the websites seem reputable they may not be entirely correct):

  
Sono allergico a (pronounced aller-jicko)
I am allergic to



Latteria
Dairy


Glutine (glue-tin-eh)
Gluten


Non mangio… (no man-geo)
I don't eat (obviously don't use this if you're actually allergic!)


Sono vegano/a
I'm vegan


Sono vegetariano 
I'm vegetarian

Gluten Free Ice cream

Overall, eating with dietary requirements in European countries that receive a lot of tourism is pretty easy. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, and it does depend on your chosen location within that country, as if it’s not widely accepted then you might struggle outside of big cities. However, if you get desperate you can usually rely on big chains like McDonalds or Pizza Express that offer gluten free food in a lot of European countries. There are also a lot of big chains that we don’t have in the UK (like Gino’s in Spain) that will also accommodate specific requirements nationwide. Supermarkets are usually big national or international chains (such as Carrefour) so self-catering is also a good option when you go on holiday. Either way, you don’t need to worry about filling your suitcase with snacks before you leave - you just need enough for the journey!

Have you had a great (or terrible!) experience while abroad? If so I’d love to hear it in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Love and Feathers, 
The Owlet 💜 
You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest

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