March 31, 2023

Dear Melissa: My Food Sensitivities Make it Hard to Socialize

Melissa, a long-haired smiling woman, and text that says Dear Melissa

Dear Melissa,

I am on a fairly strict autoimmune protocol in my Food Freedom due to serious food sensitivities and allergies. I am so happy to be feeling better and on the healthiest track, and have had no issues bidding adieu to processed junk. But sometimes I miss the everyday pleasures that now have become more difficult. I can’t go to the Heritage Days or Folk Festival and try out all the international cuisine because it’s guaranteed to contain something I cannot eat. Traveling is difficult. Going to friends’ houses and birthday parties is always a challenge, and sometimes people’s comments can make you feel like an outcast. 

Sometimes I miss the ease of a “normal” life. It gets so mentally exhausting to have to plan, prep, organize and take things everywhere and then explain to everyone why I am doing it (and the alternative is just staying home). Any advice? –T.H., Lloydminster, Alberta

Dear T.H.,

First, understand that there are legitimate stages of grief related to medical diagnoses—like your food sensitivities and allergies—that require dietary and lifestyle changes. It sounds like you’ve arrived at a place of acceptance, but that doesn’t mean you won’t still have moments when you revert to feelings of anger, bargaining, or depression.

Food grief is valid

The first thing you need to know—to believe—is that it’s okay to feel the way you feel. At any given time, you may find yourself grieving for what you have lost (what you consider a “normal” social existence)—and that’s expected and normal. Don’t compound the situation by saying, “I shouldn’t be feeling like this.” There is no should—these are your feelings, and they are valid and worthy of being given space.

I’m also not going to tell you to be grateful for the fact that you have figured out how to adjust your lifestyle so you are happy and healthy. I hate it when people do that right off the bat—it sounds condescending, and makes me feel like I haven’t really been heard. There’s a piece of you that already feels guilty for being upset that you can’t eat corn dogs at the county fair, when other people have it way worse. You don’t need to compare hardships, and again, your feelings are valid and worthy.

The truth is that it IS hard to deal with food sensitivities and allergies. It’s hard to say, “No, I can’t have that,” day after day. It’s hard to be the “picky” one family at social gatherings. It’s hard to deal with the aftermath of accidental exposures, and to have to prepare within an inch of your life just to go to the amusement park or lake for the day. It IS hard. So let’s talk practical strategies to make it feel more accessible without you having to stay home all weekend.

Shift your focus

First, can you shift your focus on group activities away from the food—even if that’s what others are centering in their experience? Make your Folk Festival trip about the activities. Plan to spend a little extra time or money taking the tours and watching the exhibitions. Skip the deep-fried-butter/bacon-wrapped-Twinkie/Nutella-stuffed-crepe aisle altogether, and ride every ride, play every game, and watch all the people. Once you change your focus, I guarantee you’ll discover there is so much more to Heritage Day or Folk Festival than the international cuisine.

You could also start to suggest outings or activities with others that don’t center food at all, whether that’s going for a walk or hike, taking a yoga or painting class, or creating a book club. By socializing in a way that is easiest for you, you can get the benefits of that in-person time with loved ones without the stress of planning a full day of on-the-go food.

Be confident in advocating for your needs 

Second, understand that your preparations and special considerations at birthday parties or group gatherings are essential—not a picky preference, not an over-the-top health compulsion, but a valid accommodation for a medical condition. Most folks don’t understand “autoimmune protocol” or the dietary implications of having an autoimmune disease, but they’d understand a peanut allergy. If you showed up at a dinner party with your own dessert and others said, “What’s that about?” you would just say, “I have a peanut allergy, so I can’t eat those brownies—I brought my own.” And they’d immediately say, “Oh, sure!”

You’ve got to treat your conditions just as matter-of-factly as that… and you don’t owe anyone a detailed explanation, unless you choose to share. “I have food sensitivities and allergies, and have to watch what I eat closely,” or “I have some health issues that require a special diet,” or “I have to avoid certain foods, so sometimes it’s easier if I bring my own.” That’s it—that’s all you have to say. If you can have the conversation ahead of time (before the party or gathering), that would make the situation even easier, as they would then either accommodate your needs or expect you to bring your own food. The less weird you feel about your food sensitivities and allergies situation, the smaller a deal it becomes for everyone. Drop your grain-free banana bread on the table nonchalantly, pass casually on the cookie plate as you cut yourself a slice, and others will take your lead.

Buy yourself some capacity

Finally, make it as easy on yourself as possible when you’re at home, to buy some capacity when you do want to go out and socialize. If there’s a Whole30 Chipotle bowl that fits your needs, order it as often as you want for an easy lunch or dinner. Invest in a Whole30 Approved meal delivery service like Made by Whole30 meals or convenience products (like a ranch, bone broth, or mayo) that fit your guidelines and keep you from having to prepare everything from scratch. Eat simply by putting ingredients on a plate and topping it with an appropriate dressing or sauce. Put meals you know work for you on repeat (and make extra to freeze for later). If you can make eating at home feel a little more effortless, you may find special preparations for socializing aren’t as energy-draining.

I hope these tips help you continue to socialize in a way that serves your health and your happiness. In the end, it’s wonderful that you’re able to manage your symptoms with diet and lifestyle, and as the months go on and you continue to gain practice, you’ll only find these accommodations easier and more comfortable in any setting—even the Folk Festival.

Best in health,

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