Living with diabetes can be incredibly difficult and at times it can even feel like a full-time job. Life as a diabetic is challenging enough during day-to-day life at home but when you throw travelling abroad into the mix, things can certainly go up a notch. With the varying culinary styles, cooking methods, and foreign cuisine that exists in different countries around the world, you might be wondering how you can best manage your diabetes. After all, you will surely want to sample local delicacies and eat out with friends and family during your holiday.
Beyond ensuring that you purchase holiday insurance for diabetics, there are plenty of ways to make things easier for yourself. This guide provides some helpful tips for dining abroad with diabetes, helping you to manage your condition while enjoying your time away.
Pack twice as much insulin as you think you will need
When it comes to travelling as a diabetic, packing twice as much medication as you think you will need is definitely advised. No matter how much insulin you think you would normally need for the period that you will be away, bring more as you don’t know how your body will react to travelling, the new environment, climate, and the local cuisine. The way the food is cooked or dishes that you are unfamiliar with could have an unforeseen effect, or contain more calories, carbs, or sugar than you thought. Packing extra insulin will give you peace of mind and will mean you are covered in case of unexpected highs in your blood sugar levels.
The same goes for other medications and items related to your diabetes management. For example, if you utilise a continuous glucose monitoring system, make sure you have packed a spare sensor, just in case the worst should happen. You don’t want to be caught out when abroad, especially when you are supposed to be enjoying your holiday.
Pack plenty of hypo snacks
When travelling to a new country, it would be completely normal to overestimate how much insulin you think you will need before each meal, purely out of fear of going high. It is quite common to ere on the side of caution so make sure to bring with you plenty of your favourite hypo snacks or make sure you stock up once you have arrived at your destination. If you prefer to use glucose tablets, ensure your travel bag has plenty of those tucked away. By being prepared in this manner, at least you will be able to start bringing your levels under control quickly, without having to worry about shopping around for snacks and tablets.
Renza, a diabetic from the blog Diabetogenic, spoke to us about her top tips for travelling diabetics and recommends a decent stash of hypo snacks for the flight alone: “I always make sure that I have my own hypo stash while on planes. But don’t worry if you don’t (or if you’ve already munched your way through). You can always get juice on flights. (Don’t forget – on some flights food and drinks are not included in the fee and you will have to pay on board.)”
Registered dietitians and nutritionists, Rebecca Bitzer & Associates, advises that not only do you come prepared with hypo snacks but that your travelling companion also stays equipped: “In case of an emergency, it is important to have some quick-acting sugar on hand like lifesavers, starbursts, or a glucagon kit. To be extra cautious, it is also a good idea for your travelling partner to also carry snacks or a glucagon kit for you.”
Try practice meals at home
A great way to prepare for your holiday, and manage your diabetes when travelling, is to do some research. Try cooking a few dishes at home that you are likely to eat on your holiday in order to gauge their nutritional info and the impact, they will have on your blood sugar levels.
This is something that Cazzy, a diabetic from the diabetes blog That Diabetic Girl, spoke to us about. She recommends “doing some research into the country you're visiting beforehand, for example, if you're visiting any Asian countries where you know it will be heavily rice and noodle-based, then you can practice with your portions of these at home, and you'll have an idea of what to expect when abroad.”
By taking this approach before travelling, you can give yourself a better idea of what to expect and hopefully take a more accurate amount of insulin before you try the authentic local meals on your holiday.
Install an app that estimates carb counts
Dining abroad can bring you into contact with all sorts of unfamiliar foods and if you would like to enjoy some of these dishes, it can be helpful to have an app installed that will help you gauge how much insulin to take. This is where carb-counting apps come in.
Cazzy, from the blog That Diabetic Girl, shared with us that downloading an app would be her number one recommendation for diabetics, and suggested a couple of great options: “My main tip for dining abroad with diabetes is to download an app like Carbs & Cals, or Calorie King. Carbs & Cals is also available in printed options. These apps can provide visual and detailed information on the carbohydrate content of meals worldwide. This will help with carb counting, improving the chances of successfully giving the correct amount of insulin, and allowing you to feel more confident with trying new foods when travelling!”
As Cazzy says, Carbs & Cals is definitely a popular option. You can look up all kinds of food and dishes in the app, and see photos representative of the portion in front of you, allowing you to compare what is on your plate with what is in the app.
We have spoken to Dan Howarth, Head of Care at Diabetes UK – the UK’s leading diabetes charity - and he shared his top tip for diabetics when it comes to dining abroad. He made sure to highlight that diabetes should not be a barrier to enjoying time away and recommended the approach of healthy eating to help manage your diabetes:
“Travelling abroad with diabetes means there are a few more things to think about before you set off. But diabetes shouldn't be a barrier to going on holiday and, with a bit of planning, you'll find you can enjoy exploring new cuisines while on your travels."
“No two people with diabetes are the same, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all 'diabetes diet' for everyone with diabetes. But healthier food choices can help you manage your diabetes while away."
“Our top tips would be to keep in mind the basics of healthy eating and to try and choose healthier wholegrain carbohydrates, less red and processed meat, more fruit and veg and cut down on added sugar. A good travel guide will give you an idea of the local cuisine, or you could carry a pocket dictionary or learn the words for a few basic foods.”
Don’t let your diabetes stop you from trying local delights
Renza, from Diabetogenic, has shared that diabetics shouldn’t be scared off trying some of the local cuisine: “One of the best things about travelling is exposure to new foods. Sometimes you might find that you have no idea of the nutritional value of what you are eating, making it tricky to dose insulin. Eat it anyway, and just take the time to keep an eye on your glucose levels afterwards. You can always correct a high blood sugar or treat a hypo. Don’t let diabetes be the reason to not try the local delicacies.”
Of course, managing your diabetes well is of the utmost importance but a balance can be struck between being safe and allowing yourself to enjoy some tasty holiday grub.
Adjust your insulin for high temperatures
Travelling abroad can have all kinds of effects on your blood sugar levels, especially when it comes to visiting countries with a different climate than you are used to. Ryan, from On Diabetes – a blog by a diabetic, for diabetics – spoke to us about his top tips for dining abroad and highlighted the importance of adjusting to the temperature:
“Remember that different temperatures can impact your insulin requirements. This is particularly true when in hot climates. Think about potentially adjusting your insulin requirements down slightly if you’re spending time in a country that is a lot hotter than you’re used to.”
As high temperatures can change how your body uses insulin, it’s important to keep on top of things, especially at mealtimes. The heat might cause you to be less active than normal, increasing the risk of high levels. Adversely, hot weather can cause insulin to be absorbed more quickly than you are used to. So, check your levels more often than normal and be ready to adjust your insulin and diet as needed.
By making sensible decisions like this, there’s no reason not to enjoy your time away. Ryan understands the trepidations diabetics can feel about travelling abroad, however, and along with his tips, shared the following reassurance: “The first few times travelling as a diabetic can be really daunting but, ultimately, if you take all the usual and correct precautions such as ensuring you have low snacks and a cool place to keep your insulin, you’ve got nothing to worry about!”
Ask restaurants for nutritional info
When you are sitting down to lunch or dinner at a local restaurant on your holiday, it can be a good idea to ask the waiting staff for the nutritional info of the dishes you are interested in. Some places will already display information like calories on the menu but in case they don’t, there’s no harm in asking as this will help you to make a better decision about what to eat and how many units of insulin will be needed before you tuck in. If the restaurant isn’t able to provide the information, this is where having an app like Carbs and Cals (mentioned above) comes in handy.
Consider sticking to familiar meals or a low-carb diet
Ryan from On Diabetes recommends the approach of sticking to familiar meals if you want to stay on the safe side: “If you’re not too confident in carb counting and insulin dosing don’t stray too far from meals you’re not used to. Eating something with familiar carbs like rice, potatoes or pasta will give you the best chance of injecting the right amount of insulin to keep you in range.”
If you are worried about the dining situation on your holiday and just want to simplify things for yourself so you can enjoy your time away, another option is to consider sticking to a low-carb diet. If you opt for low-carb meals and foods, you will need less insulin, reducing the amount of effort needed when it comes to dinner time. By avoiding obviously carb-rich foods, some of the stress can be avoided and you can still enjoy plenty of tasty local meals.
Tips for travelling diabetics when eating abroad
- Pack twice as much insulin as you think you will need
- Pack plenty of hypo snacks
- Try practice meals at home
- Install an app that estimates carb counts
- Eat healthily
- Don’t let your diabetes stop you from trying local delights
- Adjust your insulin for high temperatures
- Ask restaurants for nutritional info
- Consider sticking to familiar meals or a low-carb diet
We hope the above tips have been helpful and prove useful for your future travels. Being a diabetic on holiday isn’t always easy but with some careful management and preparation, you can enjoy a wonderful time and sample some delicious local cuisine at your chosen destination.
For more tips, guides, and advice, make sure to visit our blog.