Big Ben. Stonehenge. Mona Lisa. St. Peter’s Basilica. Many students, faculty members and missionaries visit famous landmarks and ancient ruins, but when some contract sickness or disease overseas, they have an entirely different experience.
BYU students and professors explain how some contract illness while traveling abroad and what might help prevent potential illness.
Chase Cushing, a junior studying geography, served his mission in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He returned just under a year ago and shared many experiences about getting sick as he adjusted to new foods.
Before his mission, Cushing received several priesthood blessings which referenced illness from food.
“That was kind of a scary thing to hear before my mission, but my setting apart blessing, my father’s blessing and my patriarchal blessing all referenced how I would be ill on my mission and be able to handle things,” Cushing said. “It specifically said the new food I would be eating.”
Cushing said his body didn’t handle grease very well prior to his mission and the trend only continued on his mission.
A frequent dish served in one of his areas is called feijoada. It uses black beans, sausage, basil leaves and “every undesirable body part of a pig,” Cushing said. “You got ears, pig tails, pig feet, and I loved that stuff, but after it, you would walk in the street and it’s 100 degrees out and you just get into a coma and get the meat sweats.”
Cushing became more accustomed to the food further into his mission but began to get sick from the water and other diseases more frequently.
Cushing described a time he and his American companion got sick from a dish they ate at a member’s home. Upon returning to the home and eating the same dish with a Brazilian companion, Cushing got sick again and his Brazilian companion did not.
Cushing said he never knew what made him and the other American sick and not his Brazilian companion, but it may have had something to do with the foreign quality of the food.
Reese Bastian, a junior studying electrical engineering, recently visited Nicaragua. Bastian served a mission there over a year ago and returned to many of the same areas and homes he lived in on his mission.
“I don’t know what I got sick from, besides everything, and eating way too much because they would not stop giving us food no matter what. It was just horrible,” Bastian said.
Bastian and his cousin Buck McGettigan both became ill from the food they ate while there.
According to Bastian, many people eat at fritangas, which are small food places that make grilled meat. “Some of them look more sanitary than others, just because they look more established. I don’t know that that is actually the case,” Bastian said.
Frost Steele, a BYU nutrition, dietics and food science professor, is the director of the international Malawi internship. Steele said,”human nature tells us, we eat something, we feel sick — that’s what it is.” Steele said that isn’t always the case, and without proper testing and knowledge, it’s impossible to say for sure what the cause of illness is.
Steele said every time he goes to Malawi he gets “some level of discomfort, whether that is bacterial, viral or just adaptation to different food” he doesn’t know.
Cushing, Bastian and Steele all had suggestions as to how to avoid illness, although all agreed it was impossible to guarantee.
“If you’re going to eat somewhere, don’t eat a ton,” Cushing said. “Eat a little bit of the things which are culturally different, but also eat some normal food at the same time. The food was great — taste-wise I loved it. My body just couldn’t handle it physically.”
Bastian said avoid eating too much, even if the people insist on giving you a lot of food. “Other than that, there’s nothing really that you can do besides just completely avoiding anything authentic. You could just eat at McDonalds, or just eat Oreos but you still might get sick at McDonalds,” he said.
Steele explained that it’s a choice of weighing your risk vs. benefit. “You’re at the mercy of those preparing you food,” he said. “Some people say stay away from street food. I don’t. I take the chance. There are a lot of things that could happen but I think if you live your life in fear you miss out on some really neat experiences. You might miss out on some neat experiences down the road if you’re dead too.”
Food Safety Recommendations Abroad, according to Cushing, Bastian and Steele:
- Eat at well-established or recommended restaurants
- Beware of street vendors
- Don’t eat too much
- Drink bottled liquids or filtered water
- Don’t use ice (it’s made from tap water)
- Ultimately, always weigh the risk/benefit of your choice