Written by James
Sampling and enjoying foreign cuisines is one of the greatest benefits of travelling. But if anyone suffers from lactose intolerance, like I do, eating out abroad can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations.
I’m not going to spend 5 minutes telling you what lactose is and what lactose intolerance is. I assume that you’re here because, a) you have it and b) you’re concerned about how much of a pain it might be when travelling to the far-flung corners of the world.
Cheese, milk, cream, butter. Words that usually lead to travellers drooling in anticipation of some foreign delicacy have the opposite effect on me. And potentially on many other travellers and would-be travellers who also suffer from lactose intolerance.
While lactose intolerance is probably at the lower end of the food intolerance scales (those with gluten allergies are likely scoffing at this article), it’s no less frustrating to deal with, especially when you travel to certain parts of the world (I’m looking at you, Italy).
You have to study every menu like you’re prepping for an exam, worry that the waiters even understand and are aware of your allergy (admittedly, most places are pretty good with this now), and you must always be aware of where the nearest bathroom is should the worst happen (we won’t get into the state of some bathrooms that you’ll come across, that’s a topic for a different article. Suffice to say they’re not all upset stomach-friendly).
However, regardless of how tricky travelling with lactose intolerance can sometimes be, I’d never pass up a travelling opportunity because of my weak digestive system. There are ways to mitigate any problems that might occur and to feel reasonably confident even if you’re scoffing down a delicious (and lactose-full) pizza – I actually did this in Rome, but more on that later.
I’ve learned a few tips and tricks on my travels that I’d like to share with you. I hope they can help you feel a little less apprehensive, and perhaps even visit that part of the world that, until now, has been a no-go.
1.) Be aware of the local cuisine
This one’s an obvious one – just be aware of the food the locals eat. If you arrive in parts of the world where English isn’t widely spoken, it makes sense to have an idea of what you’ll be eating and how much dairy the locals eat or cook with.
Just do a bit of research. Remember, kids, knowing is half the battle…
2.) Stock up on lactase pills and Immodium tablets
For anyone who doesn’t know, lactase pills can help you digest foods with lactose in them (you take them before you eat), and Immodium can help you settle your system should an unwanted reaction occur.
Honestly, this one tip makes all the difference, and I don’t just mean because you have medication that will help mitigate any dodgy biological reactions you might have to lactose-stuffed foods.
A lot of the problems I used to have, and what I hear other lactose intolerant people have, stemmed from fear. Worrying about where to eat, what to eat, where the bathrooms are and how far and long you might have to go without one (long-haul coach or bus trips spring to mind), can often add to the problem and make it seem worse. In some cases I felt that I was bringing about symptoms with worry – the mind is a powerful thing.
It can be very difficult to think of anything else when you’re in a foreign country and you’re eating out at a restaurant in a very small village with non-English speaking staff and sub-standard plumbing, believe me.
However, carrying around a container of pills at all times (I use old camera film containers – they’re small and fit in your pocket easily), can help take your mind off your lactose intolerance. Knowing I have a solution to any problems that might occur keeps me from thinking about it too much – which definitely helps in any situation, and means you can relax and enjoy your travelling that little bit more.
For some anecdotal evidence, I actually ate a full pizza (the best I’ve ever had) in Rome with no reaction thanks to my lactase tablets (FYI, I took three. Two at the beginning and one more with a couple of slices left).
I wouldn’t recommend doing that all the time (and yes, I knew exactly how long it would take me to get back to our Airbnb apartment just around the corner), as your supply of medication won’t last long, but sometimes the food is just too good to miss out on.
3.) Find out how to say ‘lactose intolerant’ or ‘No milk, no butter, no cream etc.’ in the local language
I admit; this isn’t going to be easy to do if you travel a lot! Remembering phrases in lots of different languages is hard. So to solve my problem I’ve come up with little cards I can carry that explain the situation in the language of the country I’m visiting. I simply hand one over when the waiter comes to collect the order and he can pass it on to the chef.
It’s not a foolproof solution, but at least I know I’m conveying my allergy in a way the server (and more importantly, the chef) will understand.
4.) Locate the bathroom
Duh. When you go to a restaurant, know where the bathroom is. You don’t want to be trying to find it if disaster strikes.
For those moments that you might need a bathroom when you’re not sitting in a restaurant (maybe you just left, maybe you ate street food) keep an eye out for public bathrooms, hotels, tourist information centres and, my favourite, department stores.
**NOTE** Heading into cafes and restaurants just to use the bathroom in continental Europe can be tricky as they’re often only available to customers, and the owners/staff rarely relent. If this is the case, somewhere that the staff are likely to be less finicky like a McDonalds, Burger King or Starbucks can be a great substitute.
5.) Dairy from goats and sheep might be fine for you
Personally, I don’t have any issue with milk, cheese or butter that comes from goats or sheep. While lactose is still present, the levels aren’t high enough to cause a reaction. So if you’re lactose intolerant and you weren’t aware there was any difference between sheep, goat and cow milk, there is! Try a few products and see how they settle with you (before you leave, of course). Goat butter, in particular, is amazing.
The same goes for hard, matured cheese from cows. While I still can’t eat that without unwanted consequences, some people with lactose intolerance can. The older and harder the cheese, the less lactose present.
And there you have it. While it might seem like a lot of fuss, it really isn’t. With just a little bit of planning, you will feel more relaxed, more comfortable and you’ll enjoy your trips a lot more.
I promise that once you’ve done the above a couple of times, it’ll become second nature, and won’t feel like a chore or that it’s distracting you from your holiday at all.
Have I missed any obvious tips above? Do you have some sound advice for other lactose intolerant travellers? Did you find this article useful? Let me know in the comments section below and let’s chat!