How to avoid food poisoning while travelling?
I am surprised this wasn’t one of my first blog posts, but I have been very lucky until I reached La Paz. Then I was very unlucky. I naively thought because I was eating a vegan diet then food poisoning wouldn’t happen to me. It’s always the same. You hear horror stories from other travellers but assume it won’t happen to you. It’s not as if I would be eating undercooked meat!
My illness hit me hard and lasted for almost two weeks. The ironic thing was that we brought with us this really amusing, yet informative book. ‘How to Shit Around the World’. We just never got around to reading it before we left. It’s also funny how I only realised how rife food poisoning is in La Paz after we got there. 80% of travellers we spoke to had either a bad stomach themselves or one of their group did.
We did however bring the usual medical treatment with us, so were not unprepared. There was however a moment in the second week of feeling like death that I was ready to get the travel insurance company on the phone and seek some urgent medical advice. Thankfully it never came to that.
I finally read ‘How to Shit around the World’, albeit far too late. Now I want to share with you a few tips from this book and my own experience so that you won’t make the same mistakes I did.
What food to choose:-
Choose vegetarian dishes. Most food poisoning occurs from meat and fish dishes. Either the meat is contaminated, not cooked properly or not stored adequately. If you are in some of the less sanitary places of the world eating vegetarian will be your safest option. However, as I discovered, this will not make you immune to food poisoning and you must take other precautions.
Make sure your food is piping hot. Whether you choose to eat meat or vegetarian make sure your food is piping hot. Cut into your food first. It could certainly be cooked thoroughly on the outside but still be frozen on the inside. This is a great tip if you are set on eating meat, especially off the roadside.
Drink bottled water. Although food is the main cause of stomach upset it still pays to stay safe when hydrating. Always drink bottled water. If you are in a restaurant an option is to ask for boiling water. If you carry a flask you can always ask them to fill it up with boiling water and once it has cooled you have safe drinking water.
Peel it, boil it or cook it. These are the three rules to follow if you are cooking for yourself. If you are eating fruit, make sure you can peel it. For example, eat fruits like bananas or oranges and avoid those like berries or grapes. Make sure you either boil or cook your food thoroughly to kill off any bacteria. I have read that the only safe way to eat lettuce is after it has been boiled.
What food to avoid
Meat. The biggest source of food poisoning comes from red meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Try and avoid these as much as you can. Adopting a vegetarian diet while travelling is your safest option.
Avoid lukewarm food. Lukewarm food is a warning sign that something has been cooked and allowed to cool or has been reheated. This state is a breeding ground for bacteria. Eat hot food piping hot and cold food cold. Lukewarm is not a good sign.
Salads. Unless you are cooking for yourself avoid salads at restaurants. Salads are often grown in highly contaminated grounds and not cleaned sufficiently. For example lettuce is extremely hard to clean. It has lots of crevices and the safest way to proceed is to boil it before you eat it. I won’t mention the horror stories I have read about what nasties have been spread over these crops due to poor sanitary options. If you are making your own salads, boil what you can. Use food with smooth surfaces such as tomatoes & cucumbers which are easy to clean.
Avoid low growing fruits. Avoid fruits such a strawberries which grow low, due to the points mentioned above. If you want to eat apples etc wash and peel these before you tuck in.
Avoid delicacies. These foods are often avoided by the countries own locals. They are usually raw or undercooked and can cause you an immeasurable amount of problems, especially in the following days. I know it is nice to try the local food but please just be careful.
Avoid shellfish and seafood. Speaking of delicacies these usually tend to be fish or shellfish of some kind. This is one of the top causes of food poisoning and is much safer to just be avoided all together.
Avoid pre-packaged sandwiches, pastas etc. For obvious reasons you have no idea how these were made and what contamination they have come into contact with. Much safer to make your own.
How busy is the restaurant? If there are plenty of people frequenting the place then that is usually a good sign. Do a quick search of the restaurant on Google and you will soon know whether there are a host of bad reviews. Even if you are extremely hungry, going into an deserted restaurant might feel good at the time but chances are later that night you will regret your decision.
Toilets. Learn how to ask where the toilets are and locate them when you enter a restaurant.
Choose vegetarian. Already discussed.
Choose al a carte. If you have an option then it is much better to choose al a carte where your meal will be served piping hot and will not have had chance to sit for who knows how long. Buffet restaurants carry more risk.
Avoid ice in drinks. The ice is usually just from the tap water.
Instead of milk have yogurt (the milk is boiled in the process)
Instead of ice cream have sorbet (it is more acidic)
Be wary of alcohol and homemade brews, stick to western brands if possible or avoid altogether
Food poisoning can last anything from 24 hours to 2 weeks. Seek medical advice if you are worried.
Replenish your salts by taking oral rehydration tablets such as Dioralyte. This is important and will aid in the speed of your recovery. If you do manage to get out, add a pinch of salt to your Coke or Fanta for an extra boost.
Dehydration. When you are not feeling well, drinking water or putting anything on your stomach can be the last thing on your mind. However you must stay hydrated. We are told to comsume 2 litres a day at the best of times. When you are loosing excess water you really need to bear this in mind.
Bananas. Bananas are a great food to eat when recovering from food poisoning. They are easy to eat and digest are a good source of potassium.
Stick to bland carbohydrates. Potatos, rice, cous cous and plain crackers are easy on the stomach. Although you might not feel like eating much, it is important to try and get some calories in while recovering.
Hot/cold drinks. Be wary of very hot or cold drinks as these can cause a quick dash to the bathroom…speaking of which always carry with you:-
The above advice obviously depends which country you choose to travel to. Check out what the cleanliness is like in the area and if there is an influx of food poisoning. Always make sure you are in good health before venturing off and have your vaccinations up to date.
Last but not least check what the toilet facilities are like before you travel. This will avoid any nasty surprises. We are very used to our western ways.