Food allergies and intolerances are becoming more and more common, especially among college students. While both interfere with one's diet, they differ in their causes and severity. A food allergy usually has much more of an immediate reaction, and is more severe since it causes an immune system response that affects numerous organs in the body. Food intolerance symptoms are often limited to digestive problems. Therefore, with food intolerances being much less serious, it is sometimes okay to eat small amounts of the food. Studying abroad was the true test for my food intolerances.

pizza, coffee
Natalie Gambrell

For most of my life I’ve dealt with food intolerances. Ever since I was a child, I've had a negative reaction to red meat. In 2014, I developed an intolerance to dairy, chocolate, nuts, and seeds, all of which if I ate a large amounts of, would give me a migraine. The following year my doctor identified an intolerance to gluten, corn, and artichokes. With all those restrictions, I have constantly struggled with feeling “high-maintenance” and “picky”.

This struggle turned into anxiety when I would think about studying abroad in a foreign country for four months. Furthermore, I didn’t want to have to constantly be limiting myself in trying new things and not getting the experience of exploring new cultures through food. Since studying abroad is all about immersing yourself in a culture, which food plays a big role in, I was really worried about not being able to fully do that. 

I coincidentally ended up picking a country that builds their lives around food and really values hospitality, Spain. Knowing that, and all my food intolerances, I chose the apartment housing option, instead of the residential or homestay option I wanted. I knew I was going to be able to have more control over when and what I ate, and ultimately it had an impact on my cultural experience in Spain. 

paella, seafood, vegetable, meat, tomato
Amy Schwartz

Even with being able to cook for myself, I still struggled a lot the first two weeks. During this time, I had lost almost ten pounds since arriving, since I was either not eating during the day, or constantly struggling to find food I could eat. School started to pile up and I was constantly exploring the city, yet had no energy. One day after 8 hours of school I was walking home and planning on going to the grocery store to get food for dinner, only to find out it was closed. I got so frustrated and knew I had to figure out a plan on how I was going to eat within the limits of my food intolerances in this new place.

To begin, I mapped out all the closest grocery stores near my apartment. I ended up finding a great vegan one that also had many gluten free options. Additionally, I made a schedule to block out the time I could go to the grocery store, and to decide what meals I would make. When I would make my dinner, I would also prepare my lunch for the week, and smoothies for the next morning so I wouldn’t go the entire day without eating.

Brooke Robinson

In regards to eating out, one of the best things that helped me was the realization that I couldn't be passive about which restaurant to go to. To have some control over this and not seem so “high-maintenance,” I knew it was important to look restaurants and the menus beforehand. This way, I wouldn’t show up to a restaurant and not only be uncomfortable myself that I could barely eat anything, but  make whoever I was with uncomfortable and sorry for me. Google has so much to offer and for most cities I went to, I found great food bloggers that recommended restaurants that catered to gluten-free, vegetarian, and so on. 

Furthermore, in eating out, it was really important for me to decide what I could and could not indulge in. Since many of my food intolerances would not give me an immediate reaction I knew if I was careful I could eat a little bit of something. Countries like Germany and Austria were extremely hard for me because they are known for dishes with meat and bread. Because I have an instant reaction with eating red meat that was not an option. But with gluten, I only have a reaction if I have a lot of it, so before going to these countries I would make sure not to eat any gluten (as hard as that was with bakery’s at every corner) and while I was there I would be okay with eating it if it was the best option. 

Madison Hagearty

In deciding what to and to not indulge in, I often took into account the local cuisine of the country I was visiting. When I was in Italy, I knew I had to have some authentic Italian pasta, so again I limited any gluten intake before and after. This way I still felt like I was getting a cultural experience and not missing out.

Madison Hagearty

As hard as it was to study abroad, navigating around Europe, and find food I could eat while still experiencing the different cultures, I grew a great sense of independence and confidence from it. I developed lasting habits like always looking at menus before going to restaurants, knowing when I can and cannot eat something, and, ultimately, not feeling bad about the food intolerances I have. Instead of shying away and just eating whatever was in front of me even if it wasn’t going to make me feel good, I now know how to better communicate my needs and experience all different types of foods within my limitations.