Observing dietary restrictions while traveling is a challenge. Of course, some restrictive dietary choices are more common than others, especially among world travelers, who tend to be conscientious, thoughtful people. Each dietary restriction faces its own challenges for travelers looking to remain strict to their eating habits.
Easily the most common restrictive dietary choice among travelers, being a vegetarian is also one of the most difficult to work with. Most of the world remains staunchly carnivorous. Sure, there are certain countries you can visit where vegetarianism is openly accommodated (e.g. India, Thailand), but you have to assume you’re travelling to a country where you’ll find meat in every dish you see on the menu and you need to make some decisions accordingly.
Overall, remaining vegetarian abroad isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy either, and you’ll need to remain vigilant if you want to stick to your code.
Vegans have considerably fewer dietary options when traveling abroad than vegetarians. For the most part vegans have to take care of their own meals and prepare all their own food. Most of the ways vegans stick to their dietary habits when eating out in the U.S. aren’t available abroad.
Foreign vegetarian restaurants are less likely to offer vegan options, less likely to make alterations to their dishes, and unless you speak the native language fluently, you probably aren’t going to be able to communicate your needs effectively with your server. Unfortunately, some may be personally offended by your suggestions.
While you can certainly travel abroad as a vegan and remain strict with your dietary requirements, you will need to organize and cook your own meals.
In the United States, it’s pretty easy to determine whether a food (especially a piece of meat) was produced locally, or sustainably, or organically. That is because to a degree we have various certifications and labels all over our food telling us its history. Not every country officially certifies or labels its food in the same way. If you will only eat beef that’s from a 100% grass-fed local farm then you might have a difficult time picking what steaks you will and won’t eat when you’re traveling abroad.
Now, there’s a fallacy made among some travelers (and many locals) that the average cut of meat you’ll purchase at a foreign grocery store is going to be superior (in quality and ethics) than the average grind you’ll pick up in the U.S.
You can’t make this assumption.
I’ve found ground beef in European capitals as factory-farmed as whatever you’ll get at your hometown market. If you shop at organic grocery stores when you’re abroad (they exist in some countries) you can let down your guard, but never assume a piece of meat you buy at a market is local and healthy just because you’re shopping overseas.
Most countries eat bread and there’s no way to know whether they’re baked with gluten-free flour, or with flour made from ancient grains, or with flour made from sprouted grains, or if it’s yeast-leavened or sourdough-leavened, or the like. When you’re eating bread abroad you have to assume it was made in opposition to whatever attitudes you hold towards grain edibility.
Even if you avoid bread you’ll find many cultures incorporate some sort of grain or starch (such as potatoes) into just about every meal. If you don’t handle grains well then minimize their consumption but understand you probably won’t be able to avoid them completely.
In the industrialized world, most of us understand that many of us eat differently than the majority and have specific food restrictions. Most of us understand and accept that feeding our friends and loved ones will usually involve accommodating at least one person’s unique dietary choices. We might not like accommodating each other, but we account for it.
This is not usually true when living abroad.
Not everyone you meet, not every restaurant you go to, will understand if you refuse food they offer you because it doesn’t meet your dietary guidelines. They’ll understand if you have an allergy and the offered food might harm you. But if you refuse food someone offers you abroad. You will likely hurt their feelings because it will be a sign of disrespect, that no explanation can adequately explain away.
In some countries, it is a more serious issue. In some cultures there is no concept of being “selective” to the foods eaten and not eaten when such foods are within their own cultural or religious norms. In these cultures, it is assumed that what is served to a guest is ethically and morally correct. The proper treatment of guests is often considered a matter of family honor.
When it comes to food served to a guest. In these cultures, refusing to eat food prepared for you may go beyond hurting their feelings, in some cultures it is a blatant insult to their family honor. This is inflammatory behavior. Be aware of this before you accept an invitation in a country with this form of cultural norm.
Also, keep in mind that a young person may understand your dietary preferences, but the cook may not.
It all boils down to a simple rule of thumb: If you are a guest in someone’s home in a very traditional society, be prepared to eat whatever they serve, or do NOT accept the invitation.