I was going to name this article, “You’re not a leper, but some days it can feel that way: The social side of food sensitivities.” Maybe I should have. Food sensitivities (intolerances, allergies, Celiac) affect more than what is on our plate. We have to turn down food that is generously prepared and offered to us with love because it could send us to the bathroom (or worse) for days. This makes us feel bad, the cook or host feel bad, and isn’t good for our social life. Food is meant to be a social experience. It is meant to be shared and enjoyed together. But now that we have food sensitivities we have become those people.
Having food sensitivities is hard. Unfortunately, avoiding certain foods has become popular these days. Gluten-free is now a fad. This makes it difficult for those of us with an actual problem to get the time of day. People don’t believe it’s a real thing. They have a hard time understanding how serious some of these intolerances can be.
I use gluten intolerance as an example in this article, but any food sensitivity can be used in its place. Egg allergy, dairy intolerance, soy sensitivity, or any other problem with food that sets you apart from the people you socialize with can have the same effect. You can’t eat the same food everyone else is enjoying, so are singled out. I get it, I’ve been there, and I have some tips on what you can do about it.
I really can’t eat the cupcake
We know it’s inconvenient, annoying, bothersome, difficult, even the subject of ridicule or jokes, but we really can’t eat certain foods. Accidentally ingesting a small amount of gluten can send a person with Celiac Disease to the hospital or person with gluten intolerance might be in the bathroom for the rest of the week.
I personally have a high probability of disaster pants, abdominal and back pain, headaches, red skin, depression and brain fog, and will almost certainly end up in bed for the rest of the day. Once, I was even fairly certain I had acute appendicitis. Seriously.
Not only are we unable to enjoy the cupcake at the child’s birthday party, but we have to explain why after being offered the cupcake 5 times.
“Oh, come on, you can have a bite.”
“No, really! I can’t have wheat, (or dairy, or sugar)!”
“Oh, you’re doing that low-carb thing.” Likely an eye roll or knowing smile.
“No, I have food intolerances (or Celiac, or sensitivities) and literally can’t eat certain foods or I will puff up like a toad and be violently ill for days.”
This is when the other person starts to feel bad for repeatedly trying to force the cupcake on you. Suddenly, things get awkward. The person mumbles something as they try to slink away, or worse apologizes profusely and scrambles to find something you can eat.
No, please don’t! It’s okay, I’m good.
I’m really not trying to be a bitch
Yesterday I was in line behind a lady trying to order her Celiac teenage daughter a totally gluten-free ice cream at a popular tourist location. She had the big book of ingredients open on the counter and was asking the young man behind the counter to wipe down the milkshake mixer, use clean utensils, and wash anything that may have come into contact with the cones. All of this to allow her daughter to have the same vacation experience as everyone else.
It took forever. I’m sure this young man, and everyone in line, was thinking that this lady was a demanding bitch–even the rest of her family disappeared–but everything she asked him to do was warranted. Can you imagine how many times a day she has to have this conversation while they are away from home?
How do you feel after causing an awkward exchange at a birthday party, dinner party, or family picnic? You’re that person at the table who has to be the picky eater. Or worse, not eat at all because you never know what has been cross-contaminated in the kitchen. You don’t know how fastidious the minimally paid kitchen staff is, how truly gluten-free the food is…or isn’t.
All of this matters if you’re Celiac or highly gluten intolerant. It only takes 1/8 of a teaspoon of gluten-containing substance to cause a reaction in a person with severe gluten intolerance or Celiac. And so you’re that person, in danger of not being invited again or have the kitchen staff spit in your food.
What is the solution?
It is our attitude about our situation that will make the difference in how happy we are. External circumstances don’t dictate whether something is an ordeal or an advantage, it is our way of thinking about them. Yeah, it’s tough, but we can adapt and move on.
Accept yourself unconditionally as you are right now. This is your normal and you don’t have to apologize for it–to yourself or anyone else.
Reframe your situation to see beyond your obstacle. Instead of being constantly on the defensive, which has probably become natural, view your situation from what you can eat and how food that is good for you makes you feel.
Take good care of yourself by eating well (whatever that means for you), taking breaks when you need them, going easy on yourself, and surrounding yourself with people who understand.
Say, “No thank you,” without regret or embarrassment. You are OK.
Find your tribe. Do a quick Google search, type your sensitivity into the search bar on Facebook, or search for a hashtag on Instagram. It helps to chat with people who get it. Better yet, organize a group of people locally so you can have dinner parties together, really let your hair down and enjoy all of the types of food that you can all feel safe eating.
Tell your story. You don’t have to explain your choices to everyone but, if people are curious, it might be good to educate them about your sensitivity. Especially if they are people close to you. Your story might inadvertently help someone who has been struggling in silence.
Being intolerant of one food or another is difficult, to say the least. We are not broken, we’re perfect and wonderfully different. If our dinner companions find us annoying, maybe we need to find different dinner companions, at least part of the time. Most importantly of all, we have to accept ourselves unconditionally as we are right now.
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