Food and Drink Safety

The more you travel, the more you learn the value of being very careful what you eat and drink, at least in countries where sanitation and safety standards are more lax or less enforced than more developed nations. We all have tolerances for “experimentation” when we we travel, and that indeed extends to food and drink consumption. It is easy to forget, especially if you are someone who was raised in a developed nation, that most countries on this planet still have issues with public food and drink safety. I believe strongly that one should immerse themselves in their surroundings when they travel, but there is also prudency in not taking that to an extreme. I have developed a travel philosophy of my own that treads a middle ground between being adventurous and conservative, and I think it could be a wise course for many of you. My philosophy has been shaped by the fact that since I was 19 years old, I have battled a series of up and down health issues. At times, I have felt relatively robust, and at other times , far more fragile. A major issue of mine has been digestive and gut problems, so you can perhaps see where I would want to be somewhat cautious in regards to gut health. I never want to advocate someone allowing health concerns to stand in the way of travel opportunities, but there certainly are times that it may be best to “baby” your body, especially since exposing yourself to foreign bacteria and parasites (not to mention pollutants) while you are even slightly ill, can compound negative health effects. As an example, I visited India this last August , and I came down with an undiagnosed food borne infection. Taken alone, this would have been not such a big deal, but I had reacted a bit strangely to a vaccine a couple months earlier, and I elected to take anti malarial pills that may have been causing side effects. When you add in the fact that India is a very polluted country, at least in many of the major cities, it is understandable that my body may not have been in the greatest shape to react to an episode of illness. Sure enough, the day before we were about to fly home, I and my companions spent some miserable hours in the hostel suffering through severe digestive upset. That episode of illness has taken me almost two months to bounce back from, and even as I type, I am still working out getting my system back to “normal.” Having been through this experience, and also from various other learning episodes I have undertook, I have created some simple guidelines for food safety abroad. Here they are:

  1. Know your current state of health, and “experiment” with food accordingly
  2. Be cautious with street food, and select restaurants based on solid safety reviews
  3. Fruits and vegetables are often safer than other foods, but the water they are cleaned in can be contaminated
  4. Meat dishes can be problematic in certain countries. Going briefly vegetarian can be wise
  5. Learn to politely refuse offers of food if necessary, learn to negotiate this (I have even gone as far to pretend to eat food offered to me, but kept hidden in my palm)
  6. Vaccines and medicines are never 100 percent effective
  7. Never be without packaged food if traveling in a poorer country or a rural area  (I made this mistake in India)
  8. Purchasing a water filter may be beneficial, but nothing is guaranteed. Soft drinks may be safer to drink, depending on the location
  9. Even if safe to eat , fried, fatty, and spicy foods can be hard on the digestive system
  10. Expect to get sick via food or waterborne illness at least once when traveling. Please don’t let this fact keep you from having adventures. Travel is still one of the most life-affirming experiences one can have, so take reasonable precautions, but have fun, and immerse yourself in other cultures in whatever ways you can.

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