Being a vegan/vegetarian and trying to stay healthy in Asia can range from easy to nearly impossible depending on to which country you plan to travel. Certain health risks are unavoidable, but some nutritional knowledge and preventative measure can be considered and exercised. The following are some of my discoveries from my personal experience while traveling to over 60 countries as a vegetarian (and vegan) in the past 20 years. In my early years of travel I've been deathly ill, and spent weeks in hospitals, so I share this with you in hopes of saving you from those experiences.
The food issue
In the West, many vegans/vegetarians consume convenience foods which are often unique to western countries. These "comfort" foods are often processed and we sometimes enjoy a mix of them which is bad food combining. This in turn weakens our digestion and makes our bodies less ready for a new environment.
If you're one who does not particularly pay close attention to your diet (if you've never considered the above points, then you probably are), then you will find most of Asia to be a challenge. Pure vegan snacks and "junk foods" are difficult to find, and often the imported foods cost more than you want to pay. Even the local snack foods you think are veg might contain animal flavorings or animal by-products disguised as "flavoring" but not labeled as what they really are.
On the other hand, if you are a person who eats a healthy and balanced diet, Asia can still be a challenge and sometimes tricky. Many of the foods you are accustomed to having will be unavailable or might be prepared in an unhealthy way by the local restaurants. Raw or uncooked vegetables can often be risky to eat in most places due to parasites and viral contamination (i.e. typhoid) -- unless you prepare them yourself.
Whether you are making a short or long trip, it's always advised to take some packaged foods with you to supplement your diet (i.e. protein bars, nuts, seeds). They come in handy on train, bus, or boat trips when there is nothing vegetarian-friendly to eat.
Also, you will need to take into consideration your budget. If you have extra cash, most tourist areas in Asia have fancier restaurants where you are less likely to get sick from the food, and usually they will offer something for vegans / vegetarians. While you don't need to be so careful eating in upscale restaurants, take a little caution regarding raw foods, unless you personally talk to the owner beforehand about food handling. It is best to eat simple foods which you know are well-cooked, haven't been sitting out, and are served hot not cold.
Remember to print a list of vegetarian restaurants & health food stores from the HappyCow site (search by City), and bring the information with you. You can also access HappyCow's database from any internet cafe abroad, and our handy mobile apps..
The best advice: DON'T GET SICK
Hospitals in certain parts of Asia can be scary, especially in India, Nepal, China, and rural places. Often times, the care you need is non-existent or what is available is worse than doing nothing. With the exception of large, metropolitan cities, you do not want to end up being cared for the "local way."
Here are some of my personal recommendations for staying healthy and prevent colds, viruses, and parasites:
On the plane...
On that long airplane ride is when many colds start. The air is continually being re-circulated, and you are breathing the same air as everyone on the plane. By washing your nose out with a little warm water once every couple hours, you will decrease the chances that any bacteria will make it inside your body.
A few drops a day - Citrus Seed Extract
Commonly known as "Grapefruit Seed Extract," with brands like "Nutri-biotic" available in the west, a few drops a day is my foremost herbal preventative defense against parasites. It helps keep the "bad" bacteria ratio down by making their home (your intestines), intolerable due to the bitter nature of the extract. The drops are taken in a cup of clean water in the morning, ideally half an hour before eating breakfast.
If I feel I have parasites, I take grapefruit seed extract up to 3 times a day in a slightly larger dose to kill most types. However, if you are really sick with GI stuff and symptoms don't improve or are serious, (to the point you can't hold down plain water with electrolytes), get to a hospital! Always ask for a NEW and un-used IV.
Citrus seed extract can also be used to clean fruits and vegetables. Soak them for 30 minutes in water with 10-15 drops per gallon. A little scrubbing is good, too. Otherwise, I will rarely eat any fruit which can't be peeled.
There is also a citrus seed nasal wash (for ending sinus infections) on the market which you might want to try as well.
Oxygen is extremely useful for three reasons:
(a) It can help clean water. By oxygenating your bottled water it will kill all organic organisms. While similar to adding iodine drops, this is natural, odor-less, and less dangerous to use than iodine.
(b) Fresh Air. It can be used to give you a dose of fresh oxygen. When in polluted Asian cities, there is often a lack of clean air; with too little oxygen and it can leave you feeling ill. This supplement works by giving your body a dose of oxygen through your blood stream. It will energize you and cleanse and re-open your lungs.
(c) May kill bacteria and parasites. For instance, could be used to soak fruit & veggies which you plan to eat raw and un-peeled.
Follow the given instructions on the bottle.
Healthy Bacteria / Probiotics
The problem with many healthy bacteria formulas on the market is that they contain dairy by-products. However, there is one product I feel great about using and is dairy-free! It is called "Latero-Flora" and is packaged with a few different labels. The most common is called, "Flora Balance" and is free of any dairy, gluten, or animal substances.
Another great brand which is room temperature stable and dairy-free is "Daily-Dophilus" by Country Life. The healthy bacteria count is much higher than Flora Balance, and this product also contains herbs to help digestion. Additionally, it comes in vegetarian capsules instead of powder which makes it easy when traveling. If you don't find it in your local health shop, you can order Daily-Dophilus here.
It is excellent for traveling as it doesn't need refrigeration. I take it every morning, 15-30 minutes before breakfast (if also taking citrus seed, I take it 30 minutes after the citrus seed). If my stomach feels upset, I will take it 2-3 times per day as suggested. If you get really sick and need take antibiotics, take this afterwards to get replenish your healthy bacteria count.
Papaya Enzyme Extract
This is known to improve digestion and make adjusting to new foods and bacteria easier on your body. Papaya helps to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates. It is primarily used to treat chronic diarrhea, celiac disease, gastrointestinal discomforts, intestinal parasites, used as a sedative and diuretic, fights allergies, infections, inflammations, treats soft tissue injuries, strains, sprains, hematomas, contusions, abrasions, and pulled muscles.
Additionally, some people eat the papaya's seeds to kill parasites, and in some places (women in the islands of Malaysia & other countries), even believe that a hand full of them a day will work as a form of birth control.
Solaray makes a good chewable product caled "Super Papaya-Plex", available here.
Chlorella, Spirulina, Blue Green Algae are excellent sources of protein and B12 for vegetarians and are ideal for travelers. These algae are whole foods, not supplements, and differ slightly from one another. Some suit some people better than others, so try them out for yourself.
I prefer to use the "Japanese Sun Chlorella A," which I think is of the best quality. However, it costs more than the other brands (about US$30 for 300 tablets). You can get a great deal on Sun A Chlorella at Amazon.com.
Vitamins and other Nutritional Supplements
I personally feel that vitamins are kind of a waste if I can eat well and get what I need from whole foods. However, as is often the case for traveling vegetarians, it is not also possible. The vitamins I like to keep with me when I travel and which I feel help me stay healthy are:
Vitamin C - HealthForce Nutritionals
Vitamin B - Complex
Echinacea and Zinc
Highly recommended for boosting your immune system and stopping colds / viruses before they get a hold of you. One company that I trust over others is Zand. They make a number of products which I use, but most essential in my health bag are these:
I'll take them at the first sign of a sore throat, if I came in contact with someone with a cold, or if I feel I just need a little boost (esp. after a long journey).
For an excellent resource on all areas of health and healing, I highly recommend Paul Pitchford's book: Healing with Wholefoods
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