Delhi Belly, Truth or Myth?

I’ve just been following a thread on FB. One person asked how to avoid Delhi Belly and the long and short of the barrage of ensuing responses was that you can’t. It is inevitable that at some point in a trip, perhaps more than once, you will get it.

Cow shit bread in the making Now I’m someone who, having gradually gained 2 stone ( that’s around what 12 kgs?) during my time living in India, has dreamed of getting Delhi Belly, literally. I’d go as far as to say, I’ve gone out of my way to get it. I’ve eaten food at tribal markets that even my lodge staff thought I was mad to try. I always stop at local dhabas, eat at any remote street food stall, railways, bus stations, drunk milk fresh from camels, devoured a chocolate thali, sampled Indian wine, my favourite drink is a chilli and coriander martini and eaten what we lovingly call ‘cow shit bread,’ you name it. And yet, my stomach has always remained intact. No rumblings or regurgitations. Nothing has happened to aid my way to an instant 5kg weight loss. How could this be?

1. I could possibly have the constitution of an ox, rarely have I ever become ill from over consuming or over imbibing. But if it is such a guarantee that Delhi Belly will get to you, no one should be immune, right?

2. More realistically I think one of the reasons is that I’m used to it. The it in this case, being Indian cuisine. Indian  food connoisseurs, please forgive me for this, but, as a generalisation, many Indian dishes are cooked with a hefty amount of oil and spices, the like of which we aren’t used to in the west.  People arrive in India and want to try the food, but the simple fact of the matter is, us foreigners ordinarily don’t eat curry for breakfast! Whatever your choice of Indian breakfast, it will have more spices and oil than we are used to, let’s face it, even the (delicious) chai has spices in it, omelettes have masala, you see where I’m going with this.  During the day, out sightseeing you may stop for lunch at a local restaurant, here you will have another dose of spices and oil. Your first evening meal? Well, you have to try a ‘curry’ don’t you? When in Rome and all that. Now the more hardy may last for 48 hours before, and I’ll put this as politely as I can, your system starts grumbling. But on such an unfamiliar and intoxicating diet, it is inevitable that it will happen, unless you’re me. 

So,TOP TIP 01: Go easy on the local food, ease your way in, just one, max 2 spicy meals a day. You’ll thank me in the long run. 

3. I keep hydrated. Sounds so obvious right? But trust me, not doing so is a mistake many travellers in India make.

Firstly, there’s nervousness about bottled water.

Secondly, India isn’t small, journeys can be long, India isn’t renowned for her hygienic public toilets. Not drinking water is the result, waiting til you get there being preferable.

Thirdly, it’s hot, hotter than we’re used to, and with the best will, you can’t always sit in a/c. I drink a LOT more water in India than anywhere else.

I once ran a lodge in MP, central India. One of the first things the owners did was gave me a 101 on electrolytes, telling me most cases of food poisoning were actually caused by dehydration. A packet of electrolytes and a bottle of water usually do the trick to get someone out of the bathroom and back on safari. The “Delhi Belly” candidates became easy to spot. They’d arrive after a long drive, would prefer tea, coffee, beer, wine to water. Head out on the afternoon safari, come back, have wine with dinner, no water and head off to bed. The next day they wouldn’t appear for safari, claiming that we’d given them food poisoning. And yet the other 10 people staying at the lodge who’d eaten he same meals were all absolutely fine. Go figure.  The minute I start feeling queasy in India, I grab a bottle of water and I always have electrolytes handy in my bag. They are readily available at all chemists and are very inexpensive.  

TOP TIP 2: Keep hydrated. It doesn’t matter how grotty a public toilet, momentary misery, beats being ill and ruining your holiday. 

4. Common Sense. Not something many people credit me with and so I’ll offer it as a top tip rather than speak from personal experience. TOP TIP 03, use common sense. There are basics to follow. 

4a. If you are of delicate constitution, avoid street food/local dhabas. If you’re not, dive in but, make sure it’s a busy place where the food is rapidly being turned over and not sitting around gathering flies, and yes, even I (mainly) stick to vegetarian when on the road. 

4b. Fresh lime soda all the way. IF you are nervous about bottled water (and ice). Take to drinking nimbu pani aka fresh lime soda. It’s a staple of India, limes are fresh and refreshing, soda bottles are guaranteed to have been kept sealed, it’s a win win. They are offered as plain (no additions, just soda and lime juice), sweet (a lot of sugar syrup!), salted or mixed, a combo of sweet and salt which is particularly good in hot weather. 

4c. Do keep washing your hands or keep a hand sanitizer handy. 

4d. One of the biggest sources of food poisoning anywhere (not just India) is rice. If it’s been kept warm a long time or been stored and reheated it can be dodgy. If in doubt, go down the roti route. 

4e. Teeth brushing and showering. Most hotels of a decent standard now have filtered water for bathing but you never can be too sure so bottled water for teeth brushing and, I’ve never understood why people wouldn’t, but keep your mouth shut  in the shower! 

And that is all I have to say on the matter…… 


Philippa is founder of Indian Experiences and author of Escape to India


Whatsapp: +447966025330

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