A year ago, I received clinical affirmation about a problem my body had been alerting me to for years. I started having severe stomach pain episodes at 25. After several attacks that sent me to the emergency room for answers, doctors shrugged their heads and told me to take Zantac. The attacks kept getting worse, and I was checked for ulcers I didn’t have. At 32, I had my gallbladder removed and was told the trouble should subside. It didn’t. In my mid 40s, I found myself eating Tums like M&Ms. After watching some documentaries about our food system, I began eating primarily whole foods. Little by little, my symptoms abated, and I understood what had been causing the problem. I had been living with severe food intolerances for decades.
What I learned as the result of food sensitivity testing last year has changed my life. Within two months of altering my diet to eliminate trouble-causing foods (gluten, soy, and dairy were the primary culprits), I lost ten pounds without counting calories or heaping on tons of exercise. My gut no longer was bloated after a meal, and the stomach discomfort disappeared. I weaned myself off the Zantac and Tums that had become my daily norm. I got sick less often and the colds I did catch were less severe and shorter lived. I recovered more quickly after strenuous exercise and had less muscle pain. I slept better. I found my skin getting clearer. I had fewer sinus headaches. I didn’t run out of energy midday and crave afternoon caffeine. Now at 49, I feel better and weigh less than I did at 29, all because I jettisoned foods that were doing me more harm than good.
There has, however, been one unexpected negative side effect from my lifestyle change. My food intolerance issues have suddenly created issues with other people. If you have food restrictions, you know what I mean. So, on behalf of those of us who live with dietary caveats, I present eight things to keep in mind before you judge or complain about people living with food intolerance.
- Our food issues are not a choice. We are all unique. Our bodies have different strengths and weaknesses. People with food sensitivity didn’t chose this path just as people with asthma didn’t choose to suffer with difficulty breathing. It is something we live with, not something we asked for or enjoy.
- Food insensitivities are a real thing. We are not making this up and we can’t just eat like you do. If we eat foods we shouldn’t, our bodies suffer and make us pay for it. It’s not a joke and it’s not an invention, fad, or stunt to garner attention.
- Following our diets is a lot of work. Eliminating multiple food groups or worrying hidden ingredients that may make us sick is a formidable task. We are constantly vigilant. I recently went to a ubiquitous lunch spot with my mom. After checking the ingredient listings for menu items online, I realized there was only one meal (a salad) I could order and even with that I had them skip the cheese and snuck in my own homemade dressing. No lie. I’ve become that person. Meal planning, grocery shopping, and eating out require research. It’s not something we undertake lightly.
- We often miss the foods we avoid for our health. I miss cheese, and sorbet is not a great substitute for ice cream or gelato. I miss being able to drink a beer without doubling over in pain. I miss French bread, birthday cake, and shortbread cookies. I miss stuffed manicotti, chile rellenos, and cheese enchiladas. And the loss of peanut M&Ms and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is still heartbreaking. It is what it is. We deal.
- This has nothing to do with you. We’re not eating differently to annoy you or cause trouble. We’re not trying to ruin your dinner party or stress you out about what to serve at your barbecue. We don’t see how this has anything to do with you. Stop telling us that the preponderance gluten-free foods and gluten-free friends annoys you. We get it. People like us once annoyed us too. Now we have perspective.
- Stop attempting to goad or guilt us into eating what you want us to try. People often tell me, “One piece won’t kill you” or “You just have to try this.” Stop it. Maintaining my proper diet requires willpower and dedication to my health. I absolutely want a crab rangoon and I would kill for a bite of your donut. I cannot have it. Stop asking me to do something that will only hurt me. It’s unkind and not helpful.
- You could do it if you had to. If I had a dollar for every time a person without food issues told me, “I could NEVER give up gluten (or sugar or soy or dairy),” I’d be living in a yacht in the Mediterranean. Trust me. You could eat the way I do. I never thought I could either until it became a necessity. It takes time, but you’d adjust.
- We don’t expect you to change for us. When I go to someone’s house, I do not expect them to accommodate my issues and prepare special foods for me. I often ask the host if I can bring a side dish because then I know I will have something to eat and share, which alleviates both our fears. When it’s not appropriate to bring my own food, I carefully choose from what is available. I have been at a party and consumed only carrot sticks and mixed nuts at dinnertime. Sometimes I pull out a Lara Bar or apple I have stashed in my purse. I expect to compensate for my issue because I understand my dietary needs. If I don’t eat anything at your house, I promise I will not fade away. You are not responsible for me. I’ve got it covered.
I know it must be frustrating to people who are unaffected by foods to feel they have to tip-toe around people with food intolerances and allergies. You don’t. It would be nice, however, if you didn’t treat us like circus freaks either.
Physical demonstration of one part of what gluten does to me The left photo shows me 30 minutes after ingesting three, tiny petit-fours I thought my body might be able to overlook. Oops. Not so much. The right photo was taken 72 hours later when the gluten had worked its way out of my system and my belly no long made me appear six months pregnant.