My Experience with visiting Mexico on IBS Diet
As I said in a previous post, this is an important topic for me. I have IBS. I am lactose and fructose intolerant (thank goodness there are tests for that now) and I also have to watch the amount of spices I consume.
Traveling abroad is particular difficult for folks like me because there is vast difference in type of food bacteria and food preparation between different countries. Coming from the outside, even without stomach issues your system simply isn’t used to it. So, the locals may be able to consume something safely, while I cannot.
How then, might you ask, do I ever travel to Mexico and eat?
Let me tell you, it’s not always easy but it is doable. I have been to Mexico a dozen times but I have only gotten sick a couple of times. One was my own fault for not being diligent and the other was an all-inclusive buffet style excursion.
In this post I cover what to consider when traveling to Mexico with IBS, including:
- Traditional Mexican food
- Mexican drinks (non-alcoholic)
- Dos and Don’ts
Traditional Mexican food:
Mexican cuisine is a fusion of indigenous and Spanish cooking. Basic staples include beans, corn, chili peppers, meats, and dairy (especially cheese). Mexican food can also be very spicy. All these things can pose a challenge to an IBS diet.
Food in Mexico can be very dairy-heavy, which can be a challenge if you’re on an IBS diet. Best advice I can give you is to ask in advance (it is often not listed on the menu as an ingredient). The key is to learn to say you have a problem in Spanish. In my experience, local Mexicans do not have a lot of experience with food allergies or intolerances. They simply assume you can eat like they do. So, I’ve had to be really diligent about asking for what I need. Yes, sometimes I get weird looks but that’s OK – better safe than sorry.
I do not have a problem with wheat but others with IBS do. Don’t worry; you can still be fine as long as you do the same as I do with dairy and learn to say: “I cannot eat wheat because I get sick” in Spanish. Mexican cooking uses more corn than wheat anyway but since wheat can be hidden, I’d be very careful. If you have a very serious problem like Celiac, I would opt for buying the groceries and preparing my own food. Or calling the restaurant in advance and asking if they can accommodate you.
Tacos, tacos everywhere tacos
There are taco stands everywhere in Mexico. Surprise! They typically open later in the evenings and are often open late into the night. They are pretty safe for my IBS diet as they normally do not come with cheese. A Mexican taco is usually a double corn tortilla, choice of meat, and cilantro and onion for topping. There are some tacos that come with cheese and my advice to you is to just skip them rather than try to get the cheese omitted.
I once tried to get the cheese skipped on Tacos Gringas and confused the waiter thoroughly. He was concerned that he could not remove the charges for the cheese. I didn’t care if he charged me but he just wasn’t getting the concept. Luckily I was with some local friends and they explained what I wanted. The waiter looked at me like I was crazy though – not worth the hassle, there are plenty other taco choices without dairy.
Seafood is one of the bonuses of travel to coastal areas of Mexico. It is fresh and plentiful and very IBS diet friendly. There are lots of choices without dairy or wheat. Try a seafood platter for 2 or 4 or 6. They are amazing, fresh (often caught that morning), and a great deal. I’ve had them both fried and grilled – good choice. Even though I am lactose intolerant, butter is fine for me to eat – it has very little lactose. So, there are some amazing dishes like octopus in garlic butter that are to die for. I also like that most Mexican traditional meals include a side of rice and beans. I simply ask for them to skip any dairy on the beans and I’m good to go.
Unfortunately, like many other Latin American countries, Mexico suffers from water problems. Most tap water is not potable. And even if a hotel purifies, I don’t trust it with my stomach. I always ask for cold bottled water to drink and buy a large water bottle for brushing teeth in the hotel room. Many hotels will provide you with bottled water anyway.
A note about eating salads: the vegetables may be washed in tap water – take that however you want to, I tend to stay away from anything that isn’t peeled.
I love this drink. If you’ve never had it, it is best described as a creamy, cinnamony, rice drink. It is made of rice, water, sugar, cinnamon, and sometimes almonds. It is served chilled and is quite refreshing. But it is made with local water. Ask in advance to make sure the water is purified.
Jamaica (Agua de Jamaica)
Literately means Hibiscus water but is more of a tea. It has a slightly tart and refreshing taste. It is served cold and has a bright ruby red color, almost like cranberry juice. And, it, like Horchata, is made with local water, so you should ask to make sure water used was purified or bottled.
One thing people are afraid of when traveling to Mexico is ice, it is after all made from water. I have a local Mexican friend that is a restaurateur and I asked him about ice. He told me that all restaurants buy ice, they do not make it, and the bought ice is made in facilities with purified water. He said that ice is perfectly safe almost everywhere – unless maybe you’re checking out some little local place and they made it themselves – in that case I would skip it. I’ve consumed ice without any problems.
Do’s and Don’ts:
Here are the things I found to help me with my IBS diet in Mexico:
- Do ask ingredients, does it contain the things you can’t have – for me that’s dairy.
- It helps if you do learn how to say it in Spanish
- Do ask for it to be omitted and explain that they don’t have to adjust the charge
- Do not trust that it has been omitted, i.e. if it looks like there is dairy in it, there probably is. It sometimes happens that the waiter or cook didn’t understand what you need.
- Always, do ask for bottled water, it is safest and use it even in your hotel room to brush your teeth or rinse contact lenses.
- Ice is probably safe, but you can always ask for cold bottle and skip the ice.
- Eat where the locals eat – if you’re eating street food, see where the locals are eating. It’s much safer than the empty vendors. Locals get sick too!
- Avoid buffets – that is where I got sick. Food is often sitting out for periods of time.
- Eating local diners – interestingly enough, I’ve done this and never had a problem. I think if you follow my advice above you will be fine.
- Avoid tourist traps that cater to American tastes, they often add wheat and dairy to almost everything.
- Avoid cold meat platters, cheese, and unsealed mayonnaise – they are often home to rampant bacteria.
So, is it worth the trouble? you may ask.
And I say: Absolutely!
Mexico is a beautiful country with amazing people and some of the most incredible beaches I’ve ever seen. It is totally worth the little bit of caution to experience it. Besides, sticking to my IBS diet wasn’t really all that bad, after a little while you get the hang of it.