Tips on Traveling with Lactose Intolerance

 

Traveling with lactose intolerance, like Alex does, can be as much fun as having fire ants thrown down your pants. While this blog aims to inspire travel, we also seek to assist readers in similar circumstances. Sure lactaid can help a bit, but the terrible side effect of it is that it doesn’t work very well, hence its lack of FDA approval. Ultimately, the best thing to do is adjust your diet (unfortunately), which can be tricky in foreign countries where the language is different and you sometimes don’t know exactly what you’re eating. So here’s some tips on traveling with lactose intolerance and some instances where you may be able to enjoy great cheese without issues!

Many people who are lactose intolerant, like myself, are only allergic to the sugar in cow’s milk. I can tolerate products made with sheep or goat milk, and in Mediterranean countries you have several cheese options. In Spain I thoroughly enjoyed eating big slices of manchego, a tasty and mild cheese made from sheep’s milk. In Italy, pecorino cheese (similar to romano) is made of sheep’s milk and is prevalent on many menus. I recently enjoyed an amazing sandwich packed with pecorino cheese on Lake Como, with zero stomach issues, and no medication. And in Greece there’s feta, made with goat’s milk, and also kaseri cheese, made with sheep’s milk. In Boston we’re noticing more of these cheeses in grocery stores and on menus in restaurants, which is wonderful. Of course, if you’re deathly allergic, be cautious of traces of cow’s milk.

Delicious pizzas are ridiculously tempting worldwide, but if they’re made with mozzarella or provolone there’s a chance you’ll have some issues. If you have a busy day of sightseeing ahead, you need to weigh whether or not it’s worth consuming cow dairy if you’re lactose intolerant, and in these situations I take a pass. If it’s worthwhile, you can of course ask for a pizza with no cheese, which is actually pretty common in Italy, particularly in Southern Italy where many people are lactose intolerant.

Slice of Italian pizza
Medication can, of course, help alleviate symptoms. Products like Imodium, Pepto Bismal and Gas-X assist with some unfortunate dairy allergy problems. But these types of drugs are more readily found in the United States. You won’t find Pepto Bismal in most countries, so if you’re an American heading abroad, be sure to pack it! If you forgot to pack medicine, head into the closest pharmacy and explain your problem and see what medications are available locally. Imodium, or its generic, is more readily available in overseas pharmacies, but can come with its own side effects of getting backed up (if you catch our drift).

Airplanes are another place where I avoid dairy at all costs, despite always packing medication. People in seats nearby also appreciate this, without knowing it. Flying at high altitudes already messes with your body and metabolism, so if you can’t digest dairy properly, just steer clear of it. If you’re on a long haul flight be sure to order a special lactose free meal ahead of time. Some airlines don’t have this option specifically, but there is usually a vegan option, which would cover this. The meals can be small and not so filling, so consider eating a well-balanced dairy-free meal before your flight so you don’t go hungry. We recently flew Aer Lingus from Dublin to Boston and while they didn’t offer a special meal option on their website, we contacted them 2 days before our flight and they were able to arrange one. So contact airlines directly on long haul flights if you don’t see special meal options.

Look up the words for “lactose intolerant” “no dairy,” no cheese,” “no milk,” etc. in the language of the country you’ll be visiting. Google translate is an excellent resource for translating these phrases into a wealth of languages. Countries like Poland can be difficult because the language is difficult to pronounce and Polish people cook with a lot of butter. So write down your phrases and see what the waiter and restaurant can do for you if they don’t speak English. Also, butter has less lactose than milk and cream, so if you’re mildly lactose intolerant your stomach can probably better cope with a moderate amount of butter. But milk, cream and certain cheeses can really muck up your stomach, so try and steer clear the best you can if you want to avoid problems.

A cheeseless pizza with fresh anchovy fillets
Cheeseless pizzas are still great in a wood-fired oven with delicious toppings, like fresh anchovy fillets (Bergamo, Italy)

Lastly, bathrooms can be a problem in certain countries and regions. Squat toilets are very common in Asia and for most westerners, they’re not fun under any circumstances. But many Asians are also lactose intolerant so it’s relatively easy to avoid dairy in countries like Thailand, Japan, China, Vietnam and many others. Those creamy Thai curries are made with coconut milk, so you’re fine on that front. But watch out in countries like India where yogurt and cow milk is prevalent, but good toilets are not. Always ask your server and use your judgment as some dodgy restaurant owners may lie, but this isn’t the general traveling norm.

What else would you suggest as tips on traveling with lactose intolerance? We believe trying new food is an important part of traveling and we’re always looking for ways to circumvent our dietary issues. Bell has become allergic to the tannins in red wine, which is unfortunate, but we still eat and drink well!

8 thoughts on “Tips on Traveling with Lactose Intolerance

  1. Wow, this is very informative. I never realised how inconvenient it is to have food allergies. I have a stomach of steel and I may have taken it for granted how easier it is to be able to eat anything. Im glad it hasn’t deterred you in any way to travel Alex! The positive side is that the world is now getting more and more aware of food allergies and have more options to offer.

    1. Hey Jean! I’m really glad you found the post informative! I developed lactose intolerance in my 20’s and it’s subsequently gotten a bit worse (and Bell has developed an allergy to the tannins in red wine). So these are some smaller reasons to try and travel when you’re younger (the bigger reasons being possible children and ageing parents). But yeah it’s great that the world is more aware of allergies and Bell and I still manage to get around pretty good. Wonderful you can eat anything, I envy you there!..Happiest of travels to you guys! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Liz! Yeah it’s really a pity to have pass on so much excellent food, but it’s nice to be armed with the info to get around a few things. Cheers!

  2. I’m semi-lactose intolerant (I think). I’ve never actually been tested, but I know if I have a glass of milk I’ll be sick for hours. If I’m in a coffee shop I usually stick to black coffee because it’s the safest bet. Usually having a little bit of yogurt or cheese is okay for me, and I make an exception if I’m gonna be somewhere with good gelato, and pack some immodium and lactaid pills just in case. I didn’t realize a person could just be allergic to the sugar in cow’s milk, but not in goat or sheep milk. Maybe I should get that checked so I know.

    And yes ordering the lactose free meal on a plane is important. I’ll email or call the airline if that doesn’t seem to be an option when booking the flight.

    1. Thanks for sharing Alouise. I used to take a lot of Imodium and Pepto Bismol (which has actually been banned in many countries like the Netherlands). Pinpointing a mild or moderate dairy allergy can be confusing because you may be allergic to the milk sugar or the milk fat (or both). And if you love dairy you can live in denial by popping pills that aren’t good for you. Luckily, if you can narrow down what you can tolerate and what you can’t, most people can still enjoy some amazing dairy products during their travels without the discomfort and without having to swallow chemicals that might be harmful to your long term health.

      Good idea with the airlines. Happy travels and happy eating!

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