Trying local food is one of the “must-dos” when visiting a new destination. Culinary norms and flavors vary greatly by region, and enjoying the fruits of the land is always a fun way to better understand the local feel of a place. Having diabetes does not need to limit what you experience, but it is important to remember that your food choices abroad will have a huge impact on how you feel during the trip, and therefore how much you are able to enjoy the overall experience.

What are the norms?

When possible, plan before you leave. Think about what foods and dishes are most popular in the areas you are traveling to and what items you want to make sure to try. Also ask yourself about eating norms in the regions you will be traveling to. Are the meal times different than what you are accustomed to? Do locals tend towards dishes and snacks that are bread-based? Do they eat a lot of meat? If so, red meat or seafood? Discussing these types of questions with your diabetes team will help you to fully experience the culture while also making smart choices that will help you to keep in good control.

Can I still have that?

Portion sizes and general restaurant dining can be quite challenging. This is another area where you will benefit from planning ahead! Meet with your diabetes team, explain where you are going, that there is a cultural specialty dish you want to try, and ask if they have any suggestions that can help you to enjoy the dish while also controlling blood glucose levels. They also may have other ideas to help you navigate the restaurant setting. Below we also have a few suggestions.

  • Stay away from sugar drinks when possible. If you came to a restaurant to try a special dish, then save your calories and carbs for that instead of piling on calories from sweetened teas, special coffees, or other sugary drinks.
  • Limit the amount of pre-meal consumption, especially bread! Maybe order a pre-meal salad to curb your appetite instead of filling up on rolls or bread sticks.
  • When possible, try cultural dishes that are veggie based instead of grain based.
  • Beware sauces and dressings! There are a number of dishes that can be made more diabetes friendly by asking to not have the sauce, to have half the sauce, or to simply have it on the side and add the amount you want.
  • In a similar vein, add little or no extra butter, jams, or gravies to dishes.
  • One of the best tips we can give you is to ask! Dishes that include fried components can often be adjusted to have that item grilled or steamed instead.
  • When you receive your meal, set aside a portion for to-go. This is a great way to try a dish even if it doesn’t have a great nutritional profile. Splitting the meal with a friend is another way to provide good portion control.
  • If you are going to have a post-meal coffee, or a more fancy drink while out and about, consider ordering a smaller size and asking for it “half sweet” or for a “lite” version that has less sugar and fewer calories.
  • This will bring you to the dessert portion of the night. If you choose to enjoy a post-meal treat, choosing a fruit-based dessert instead of a chocolate based or other heavier dessert can be one way to help keep the calories a little lower.

How much?

Even if you find specific nutritional content information online, it can be difficult to assess the portion sizes while abroad. That is why we are giving you a head start! See our list below for visual equivalents of common serving sizes.

Serving size approximations

  • 1 cup: a baseball
    • Many grains (i.e. pasta, rice, cereals) have a 1C serving size
  • 3oz of meat: a deck of cards
    • Many meats, fish, and poultry have a 3oz serving size
  • 2 Tablespoons: a ping pong ball
    • Many dressings, nut butters, and other fat/oil base condiments have a 2T serving size
  • ¼ cup: a large egg
    • Many nuts have a ¼ cup serving size

Other food tips while traveling

If you are feeling uncertain about the food standards of the regions you are traveling through, these tips will help you play it safe and limit your risk of becoming sick while traveling.

  • Peel fruits before eating
  • Ask for no ice cubes in your drinks
  • Avoid or be cautious of food carts and street vendors
  • Avoid milk if it is not pasteurized
  • Remember that restaurant foods are typically high in both fat and sodium
  • Note that there are regional differences in how certain foods are prepared (i.e. thick crust cheese pizza will have a different calorie and carb count than thin crust cheese pizza)