Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting are the most unwanted companions on any trip. But if you want to experience authentic, local food when you travel, how can you do so and prevent getting ill?
Truly, it's much easier than you think, and the rewards are worth it. Sitting amidst Arabic chatter in a tiny Moroccan food stall, or contemplating which ingredients to have in your handmade roti, are experiences you won't soon forget.
So, how to enjoy authentic street-side eats and stay well? As a Registered Nurse turned nomad of 2.5+ years, I like to think I have a few tips on food and travel safety. In this post I'll spell out exactly how to prevent and treat food poisoning while travelling, and still eat locally!
Obnoxious disclaimer: this blog post should not replace actual medical advice (duh). Listen to your own body and when in doubt, seek medical attention.
Tip 1: Look for foods that are hot and steaming
Hot temperatures kill germs that cause digestive illnesses. Cool or lukewarm temps on the other hand, encourage their growth. Look for items that are steaming or smoking with heat, they're fresher or at least hot.
When in doubt, opt for boiling hot foods and drinks such as stews, soups, and teas. These are at least continuously kept bubbling hot, meaning it's more likely to have killed off harmful bugs. Deep-fried goods are another “safer” option given that the contents have most likely been cooked at a very high temperature.
Tip 2: Eat where it's busy & locals are dining
A restaurant that's serving local people and is well-visited usually means a higher turnover of food. Higher food turnover = greater freshness, and less likelihood that it's been sitting around at unsafe temps.
While touristy restaurants can be luring at times, these can sometimes get away with lesser food standards since they don't have repeat customers.
Fun fact: I've only twice had food poisoning while travelling, and we've sustained ourselves on street food for much of our travels. Both times I've fallen ill were in touristy restaurants with enormous English menus (once in France, once in China).
Tip 3: Watch for signs of food hygiene
If you're eating local in many places around the world, I will tell you now that the food standards won't be the same as your home country. Yes, people may touch your food with bare hands. Yes, much of it will not be properly stored. Nope, you won't die.
There are still some basic signs you can look for when deciding where to eat to avoid sickness. Not all the boxes may be checked, but here's some things to look for:
- Tongs or utensils used to handle food (as opposed to bare hands)
- Food covers or protectors such as saran wrap, pot lids, or spinning fans to keep flies off
- Dishes being made fresh (as opposed to already sitting out)
- Food is steaming/smoking hot
- Gloves and/or hair covers are in use
- Sinks with soap and water for staff (more common in restaurants as opposed to food stalls)
Tip 4: Wash YOUR hands!
Your very own fingers can be responsible for picking up tummy-gurgling bacteria and stuffing it straight into your body. Always try to wash your hands before you eat and/or use sanitizer at the very least!
Tip 5: Drink safe water & ice
Unclean water is a common source of illness for travellers. Luckily, knowing what to look for and how to treat water yourself is easy peasy!
Check bottled water carefully
Buying a bottled drink? Check that the seal is intact as bottled beverages (especially water) can sometimes be refilled with unclean sources. When in serious doubt, you can opt for sparkling water or soda since it will be noticeably carbonated. Ideally for the environment and costs, you should avoid bottled water and bring your own instead.
Drink clean ice
Wary of ice? You needn't say no, but check that the cubes are uniform (e.g. as opposed to home-made cubes with tap water). In many places restaurants or stalls use filtered ice that's delivered. This is usually recognizable by a consistent shape, such as tube-like cylinders.
Drink safe tap water (or make it safe yourself)
Unsure if the tap water is safe to drink? If you're at a hotel or hostel, ask the reception staff and/or do a Google search to confirm. When in doubt, bring water to a boil for 60 seconds and let cool. (Note: this only kills germs but not chemicals e.g. arsenic which is in tap systems, as we discovered in Taiwan!).
Finally, you could invest in a portable water filter to purify your water, like a Steripen, which we have. It's pricey but pays for itself after many uses, and is essential if camping or doing more remote travel.
Tip 6: Be dairy wary
As an avid dairy lover myself, I'll tell you now that you needn't avoid dairy for fear of getting sick when travelling. However, because dairy has live bacteria in it that can go “off”, a bit more caution is wise when consuming it, especially in developing regions. A few quick tips:
- Check how dairy goods are stored. Are they kept cold? Or left at room temp? How reliable is the refrigeration (i.e. are power outages common?)
- Check the consistency of the food. Does it look like it has melted? Ice cream for example, can commonly cause stomach ailments if it has the chance to melt and then bacteria to grow. Check the shape (especially on packaged ice creams) to see if it appears to have melted and morphed, then been re-frozen.
- Check how dairy goods are served. Are they cold when they should be? Or lukewarm?
- Do a smell and taste test. Is the scent or taste sour or off? Does it still smell and taste like you expect it should?
Tip 7: Eat local – not foreign – cuisine
Typically local food is more likely to be prepared safely. Dishes that are native to the area are far more likely to be made properly and promptly.
Tip 8: Opt for fruits and veggies with peels
Fruit and veggies can pose a risk for illness because the skins can hold onto germs you can't see. This can come from soil, feces, unclean hands, or being washed in contaminated water.
Given this, the safest options for fruits and veggies include those with peels, as this removes potential contaminant “holders” revealing an untouched inside for eating. Here are some examples of common fruit & veg options with peels:
Note: you needn't steer clear of foods that don't have peels. But if in doubt or if you cannot wash fruits and veggies, the above suggestions can pose less of a risk.
Tip 9: Check that meat is cooked & stored safely
Look at how the meat is stored and handled
- Is it kept cool, on ice, or in a fridge? If at room temp, how long has it likely been there (i.e. how busy is the vendor)?
- Is the meat covered? Are bugs being kept off (e.g. with fans or lids), or are flies freely landing on it?
Check if & how the meat is cooked and kept warm
- Look at the inside of the meat. Is it pink or raw looking? Is it hot, or just cool/lukewarm?
- How is it cooked? Is it being kept over a few measly coals or a blazing fire?
Most street meat vendors don't follow “regular” food standards, but that shouldn't scare you off. When in doubt, stick to our above tips. At minimum, look for food that's hot and/or vendors that are busy!
How do I know if I have food poisoning?
The signs and symptoms are fairly simple and can include any of the following:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Stomach cramps
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Muscle aches
How to manage food poisoning while travelling
1. Stay hydrated
It is far more important to drink than eat when ill with food poisoning. Your body is losing salts and electrolytes through diarrhea and vomiting. You need to replace these with electrolyte-rich fluids (i.e. not just water).
So, what to drink in addition to H2O? Juice, coconut water, popsicles, rehydration drinks like Gatorade/Powerade, or rehydration salts are all great options for replacing the lost salts and electrolytes.
Now, if you're truly bedridden, super thrifty, or unable to buy anything besides water, you can make your own easy rehydration fluid with these ingredients.
DIY oral rehydration recipe:
- 1 litre of clean water (if unsure whether water is clean, boil for at least 60 seconds and let cool)
- 6 teaspoons of sugar (if in a hotel, can usually find with coffee sets)
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt (salt packets easily findable at fast food chains)
Dissolve this mixture and drink. Easy!
2. Check your urine colour and frequency
Yes, that's right, you gotta examine your pee and think about how often you're going. Your urine is a reflection of your hydration. Not peeing often, and only peeing dark, tea-coloured urine is a sign of dehydration. If you're still peeing fairly regularly and it's lighter or clear-coloured, then you are still hydrated. So keep an eye on your wee!
3. Rest up & lay off the alcohol
Take it easy while your sick – your body needs time to heal. Avoiding alcohol and parties is a good idea as these aren't so friendly on the digestive tract.
4. Stick to bland foods and avoid dairy
Excessive diarrhea can temporarily destroy the mini hair-like structures in your intestines called cilia. These are needed to break down foods like dairy. This means it's wise to lay off dairy products for at least a few days after diarrhea (or risk it going right through you).
Other foods to avoid include spicy, greasy eats which may be a bit harsh on weakened tummies. Bland foods like bread, crackers, dry cereal, and rice may be more easily tolerated.
5. Top up on probiotics
While the scientific jury is still out on whether these are an absolute “yes” for managing diarrhea, I opt for these as part of any gut recovery and illness prevention. Digestive ailments wipe out the “good” bacteria in your gut. Replacing these with probiotics can help you ease your way back to normal!
Probiotics usually come in tablet or liquid form and do not require a prescription. You may want to pick some up before a trip, as they can be harder to find in pharmacies overseas. If you can, it's best to keep probiotics refrigerated. Probiotics are also naturally-occurring in food & drink like kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso soup, pickles, tempeh, and more.
When to seek medical attention
You feel like crap, but when should you actually seek clinical help? Generally these are signs that it's time to see someone, but always listen to your body. As in, when in doubt, get checked out.
Signs you should seek medical attention for food poisoning:
- Diarrhea is bloody
- Diarrhea/vomiting does not resolve after a few days
- You cannot manage to stay hydrated orally
- You have severe signs of dehydration (e.g. sunken eyes, dry lips or mouth, concentrated urine &/or not urinating often, dizziness/blacking out, vomit is green/bile coloured)
Preventing Food Poisoning: The Thrifty Gist
- Always look for steaming hot foods and busy vendors
- Dine where the locals do
- If you get sick, rehydrate early and often with more than just water (e.g. juice, coconut water)
- When in doubt &/or feeling quite unwell, seek medical attention
Street food is an essential part of travel and experiencing other cultures, and one shouldn't steer clear of trying local eats out of fear. Knowing what to look for and how to take care of yourself is key. So fear not, and eat up. Happy dining!
Have a tip or trick for preventing tummy troubles on the road? Leave a thought below!