Tips and Tricks for Students with Dietary Restrictions

Willa Thomas headshot
Willa Thomas
October 9, 2023
Plate of lactose-free cheese, veggies, meat, and crackers at a local winery in Tuscany

While I have loved my study abroad journey so far, one of the things I had more difficulty adjusting to was navigating my dietary restrictions while abroad. I have been eating gluten and dairy-free for about 5 years to help with my autoimmune condition. When I first decided to go to Italy people thought that I was crazy. It’s the land of pizza, pasta, cheese, and gelato. What was I going to eat? Luckily, I’ve had years of experience navigating dietary restrictions, so I wasn’t too worried. In some ways this process was easier than I thought it would be. In others, I was surprised by the adjustment.

My biggest shock and difficulty adjusting was navigating the grocery store. This is something I think everyone in my program struggled with at first regardless of if they had any restrictions. Grocery stores in Europe tend to be very small. Add in not speaking the language and it makes finding foods without dairy and gluten a little tricky. For the first week or so, every time I would go into the store, I would leave being overwhelmed with no clue about the items I had purchased. Eventually, though, you do get the hang of it, I promise! My biggest tips for this adjustment are:

  1. The Google Translate app: there’s a feature on this app that allows you to take a photo of whatever you are translating, for me it’s often the ingredient list on a food package, and it quickly translates the words into English from the photo. This makes it fast and easy to figure out what you are buying instead of guessing.
  2. Go to the store at off times: The worst part about these tiny grocery stores is when they get crowded. There tends to be a one-way traffic rule throughout the aisles (kind of like the Ikea showroom). This makes it difficult to get everything you need or even see all your options without being in people’s way. I found that if you went early in the day while everyone is at work, or later at night it's much less busy and a little easier to take your time to find what you need.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: I spent the first week of my program eating only salads and veggies because I was too afraid to ask for help finding other foods. I quickly realized that this was not sustainable at all. Luckily, the IES Abroad staff in Siena are extremely helpful and helped me to find some other options at the supermarket and in restaurants. Most supermarkets here have special sections for gluten and dairy-free foods. Once I discovered those my diet completely changed. I was even surprised to find some brands that I love in the US here!

While it was a little bit harder to get used to my dietary restrictions in Italy some things pleasantly surprised me. I have found the Italians to be very accommodating to dietary restrictions. Most restaurants in Italy use a number system for common allergens. Every dish on the menu has numbers next to it which correspond to a key of the common allergens like fish, meat, gluten, dairy, etc. This makes it easy to find something that fits into my restrictions without even having to ask. If the restaurant we are at doesn’t have this, most places always have a gluten-free pasta option. Sometimes they will even bring you a completely new menu with gluten-free things! There are also so many dairy-free or lactose-free cheeses and milks in the supermarkets. With all these things combined, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on all the delicious food at all. My biggest tip through all of this is to be forgiving of yourself. Moving to a different country is a big adjustment especially when you have dietary restrictions to think about. It takes a minute to adjust but I found it to be like moving to college my freshman year in the aspect of, every day you discover something new that makes the process a little bit easier. Eventually, you get it down and everything works out!

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Willa Thomas headshot

Willa Thomas

My name is Willa Thomas and I am originally from San Diego, CA. I am a biology major on the pre-nursing track but chose to study business and economics while abroad to learn something new and broaden my horizons!

2023 Fall
Home University:
Wofford College
Biological Sciences
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