First, understand that the food you eat at home isn't necessarily "safer" than food abroad; it's often simply that your body isn't accustomed to it. One important difference between home-grown and foreign foods is the use of more "natural" fertilizers abroad, which can carry bacteria that could cause intestinal distress -- also known as traveler's tummy.
A few of the most common foodborne illnesses include salmonellosis (caused by salmonella bacteria), E. coli infection and Norwalk virus. Outbreaks of these and other foodborne illnesses are monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); it's worth checking out the Web sites of these organizations before you travel to see if any of the places you're visiting are currently affected. These sites will also inform you about any ongoing threats you might face where you're going, such as typhoid or hepatitis.
Your best defense against foodborne illnesses is not to panic, but to use common sense -- and with that in mind, we've compiled these tips for eating well and eating safely no matter where you travel.
Six Tips for Dining Abroad
What (Not) to Eat and Drink
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It may be convenient, but it's often risky to purchase food from street vendors. Be sure your dish is served hot, and take a look at the cart or kiosk before ordering. Does it look clean and well kept? Is it busy? (The fewer the customers, the longer the food may sit before being served.)
When choosing a restaurant, our advice is similar: Go with the people flow. Busy restaurants typically serve fresh, clean and safe food. Still, ask that your meal be cooked well, and take normal precautions. If you're in a non-English-speaking country, it's a good idea to have a phrasebook on hand to help translate the menu and avoid potentially risky dishes.
One other bit of advice, straight from the mouths of moms everywhere: Wash your hands before you eat. Keep in mind that you must use "safe" water to wash not only your hands but also any foods you're preparing.
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Those most at risk for foodborne illness are the pregnant, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. However, being on the road can be rough on even the healthiest travelers. In the midst of dashing from one place to the next, it's easy to neglect proper nutrition; following irregular eating schedules or existing for days on the same foods can compromise the immune system and cause a cascade of health problems. Try to maintain a well-balanced diet. In the absence of meat, you can find protein in eggs, nuts, lentils and tofu. Peelable fruit and vegetables are a good source of trace minerals and vitamins. Make sure your diet includes breads and grains such as rice. Stay hydrated by drinking lots of (safe) water.
Supplements and vitamins, including iron pills, can help maintain balance when your diet is insufficient. Also, "sports bars" such as Balance or Power Bars are excellent, nutrient-packed travel snacks.
Poll: How Do You Stay Healthy While Traveling?
The vegetarian lifestyle has moved into the mainstream in many parts of the world, and vegetarian sections have become common on restaurant menus. However, be careful of any entree that is not specifically marked as vegetarian, especially in places such as South America, where beef and other meats are important staples. In these cases, you may explain to a waiter that you do not eat meat, and yet be served lasagna made with meat sauce. Be aware that sauces and soups are often made with meat stock. Buying your own food at a grocery or other merchant is often your best option.
If you have allergies or food intolerances, or are on a special diet (low sugar, low calorie, etc.), it's especially important that you have a phrasebook to help you decipher foreign language menus. Like vegetarians, you may want to consider purchasing your own food at a grocery store.
For more information, see Traveling with Dietary Restrictions.
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--updated by Sarah Schlichter