In my second year at university, I joined the 20% of 16- to 24-year-olds who are vegetarian. It was an ethical and practical decision: a vegetarian diet is cheap, easy and accepted in the UK – plus it justified my excessive peanut butter habit.
Then came a boeuf bourguignon-shaped spanner in the works: I moved to France for a year to study. It soon became clear that I was going to struggle – while the meat-free food market is worth around £657m in the UK, according to a recent estimate. demand in France is much smaller.
With vegan meals effectively banned in school canteens, Quorn not always available in Carrefour. and my host family’s horror that I wasn’t “much of a meat-eater” – not to mention the subpar peanut butter – the practical advantages of vegetarianism had gone.
For me, compromise was the best option – while not cooking meat for myself, I was keen to avoid insult or hassle so ate what I was given. Besides, I reasoned, food is a major part of every culture – would I really be getting into the year-abroad mindset if I refused to try local, traditional foods?
But for students with medical or religious reasons for restricted diets, or who are just less hypocritical than myself, flexibility isn’t an option. So how can you navigate a year abroad on a restricted diet?
Abigail Jones (not her real name) studies French and Italian at the University of Kent, and is allergic to nuts, as well as mosquito bites. She found preparation key for her time in Switzerland and Italy: “I keep a ready supply of the stuff I need in case I get bitten or eat something. Make sure you know exactly how to explain to waiters that you have an allergy, so you don’t accidentally order something that could make you ill.”
Allergy UK offers translation cards and gives advice for coping with allergies when travelling. To ask students who might have been in your situation for advice, start a discussion on the Third Year Abroad website.
Research your destination
Find out how aware your host country is of your requirement. Awareness can vary considerably from place to place, even for common medical conditions. Jess Husbands studies French and Spanish at the University of Edinburgh, and is coeliac. “Spain was
much better than France for being coeliac: if I said ‘soy coeliaca’ in Spain, most people knew what it was. But in France no one had heard of it – I had to say ‘je suis allergique au blé’ which is obviously not the same thing.”
In France only 10 to 20% of coeliacs are diagnosed, making awareness levels much lower than in the UK. Coeliac UK provides useful country guides. detailing awareness levels, and where to find products and local coeliac groups.
Try new things
Having to be a bit more creative with your culinary choices can turn into an advantage. Chloë Rose, a Jewish student at the University of Birmingham, spent a year in Spain: “I found out before I went that there was no Jewish community in Granada, which meant getting kosher food would be next to impossible. I decided the best option would be to go vegetarian.”
Although she missed eating meat, Rose didn’t struggle to find something she enjoyed eating. “Eating out can be difficult but we often went to restaurants where there are plenty of meat-free options. I expanded my range of what I eat a lot more than I did in Birmingham: I tried couscous, and I didn’t really eat eggs before, but now I feel better that I have more healthy options instead of just resorting to fish fingers or a frozen pizza. And if in doubt I always have tortilla.”
When preparing to go abroad, the threat of endless uninspiring dinners can fill restricted eaters with dread. But food is only one small aspect of life, as it is at home, and your diet won’t deprive you of your best memories. “There will always be something to eat,” adds Rose. “I knew that other parts of my year abroad – such as location and the university – were more important than what I was going to eat every day.”
By taking the same precautions as you would at home, and doing research before arriving – as you would for any other aspect of your time abroad, like accommodation – there’s no reason why a restricted diet should get in the way of a great year.
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