In today’s world, food intolerances seem to be becoming more and more prevalent. From lactose intolerance to gluten allergies, it seems few people can fully tolerate all foods. Nevertheless, it can still be extremely difficult to navigate the world with dietary restrictions.
I first suspected I had a food intolerance my senior year of high school. I’d never noticed any sort of food allergy or intolerance previously. I hardly ever felt great after eating a meal or having my morning latte, but the discomfort was never anything severe.
However, my final year of high school is when things took a turn. I started feeling more uncomfortable than normal and was even physically sick sometimes. I felt extremely nauseated and bloated almost every night, so I knew it was time to fix the problem.
Before submitting myself to a gastrointestinal (GI) specialist, I decided to try cutting things out of my diet to see if anything improved. Low and behold, dairy was the winner, and I immediately felt better upon removing it. Figuring out how to deal with my dietary restrictions led me down a very bumpy road, but three years later, I feel like I’ve (almost) mastered it.
At first, giving up an entire food group sucks. Not only did I have to give up some of my favorite things — ice cream, mozzarella cheese and basically all desserts and Italian foods — but I also felt like an inconvenience to anyone with whom I tried to share a meal.
Sharing meals with people who knew me before I cut dairy out of my diet was the hardest at first. Something many people might not realize is that dietary restrictions not only make your life more difficult because you can’t eat something, but also because many people are not understanding of food intolerances.
But the whole world isn’t as difficult to convince of your dietary needs as your family or childhood friends who watched you eat dairy or gluten or whatever it was in the past that you can no longer tolerate. Luckily, many people have created alternatives for those with food intolerances and dietary restrictions, such as lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance and veganism.
Today, food companies make having food intolerances a piece of cake. Want ice cream but can’t do the dairy? Brands such as So Delicious, Halo Top, Lactaid and many more have you covered. Miss your morning yogurt? Endless plant-based yogurts exist, along with non-dairy milk alternatives, cream cheeses, coffee creamers, butter cheeses — you name it, someone has invented it.
Individuals with gluten intolerances due to celiac disease or other reasons have many alternatives as well. Gluten-free breads, muffins, flours, pastries, frozen foods — the possibilities here are truly endless as well. Cutting a food group out of your diet doesn’t really need to feel like you’re cutting out anything at all.
However, for many people, it’s not that easy. Yes, so many food alternatives exist, but they come at a price. Like all “specialty” products, non-dairy and gluten-free alternatives are significantly more expensive than the original dairy or gluten filled products. So, if you can afford it, these companies have made your life so much easier. However, many can’t, so cutting the foods you love really is the only solution.
Navigating Dinner Parties
I still dread going to big family dinners. Not only is it difficult to figure out what I can and can’t eat, but asking if something contains dairy often leads to a bigger fuss than I was trying to make, ending in most of my family thinking I’m just “difficult.” So, instead of asking about the food when I dine with my relatives or at a dinner party somewhere else, I have learned to navigate them on my own in a generally fool-proof way.
My biggest tip is to offer to bring something. With larger, formal dinner parties, this option might not be viable, but when dining with friends and family (at least in my experience), guests generally contribute. Bringing a dish you made yourself is the only true way to ensure you will have something to eat that won’t anger your food intolerance. When I bring something, I generally try to make something that avoids many food allergies and intolerances, just in case other people with dietary restrictions are attending.
If bringing something is not an option, I always load up on vegetables. Veggies are typically prepared simply, so it’s easy to avoid intolerable foods with these dishes. However, watch out for sauces and butter. Butter obviously contains dairy, and sauces often contain both flour (gluten) and cream or butter. Some sauces are safe, but better safe than sorry with this one. Another easy go-to is meat or fish. Again, if it’s drenched in sauce, be wary. However, often, it’s safe.
When I first cut dairy, I hated eating at restaurants, but with time, I realized it wasn’t so bad. My biggest tip is to get over being shy with the waiter, because chances are there are things you can eat, even if it isn’t on the menu. If the waiter doesn’t know the answer or doesn’t seem to want to help you, kindly ask to speak to their manager or ask them to talk to the kitchen about your food intolerances. I know it feels like a hassle and can be embarrassing, but asking is better than not eating or getting sick.
Luckily, many restaurants now label their menus so individuals with food intolerances and allergies can easily navigate it themselves and, thus, avoid the awkward situation I just described. If you have a more serious condition, such as celiac disease, I would talk to your waiter about possible cross contamination, but otherwise, these restaurants help you avoid the hassle.
For me and other lactose intolerant individuals, dairy is not always listed as an allergen, even at places that are “food allergy friendly.” So, I typically go for vegan options. That way, I know I am avoiding dairy, and there’s nothing wrong with a plant-based meal here and there.
Bottom line, food intolerances come with a learning curve. It takes time — sometimes a while — to fully understand what works for your body and what lengths you are willing to go in order to live well with your dietary restrictions. I know it sucks at first, but it doesn’t have to. I promise, eating gets easier, and you will get better at navigating all food situations. Just give it time.