8 Thoughts on Better Living with Dietary Restrictions

One year and eight months ago, I began to experience IBS-like symptoms. For a year, I tried to just pretend they weren’t happening. Of course, you can only ignore problems for so long, and so I eventually began a six month experiment in eating gluten-free and wheat-free (which lessened my issues) and then discovered the low-FODMAP diet which, several months ago, completely resolved all of my issues.

Well, all but one.

Now my issue is that I can buy every food I’m “allowed” to eat on a single trip to the grocery store.

Not really, of course. But don’t you sometimes feel that way? Then this post is for you.

If you have significant dietary restrictions due to one or more intolerances (gluten, fructose, etc), you’ve probably found that the most difficult aspects of abiding strictly by your diet are not strictly dietary challenges. Rather, they are mental, emotional, and social obstacles.

This post is a list of things I keep in mind to help me refrain from eating my personal poisons, and which help me see through the facade of monotony inherent in eating a restricted diet while living in a culture of overwhelming consumption and choice.


8. It’s Perfectly Normal

… which, coincidentally, is also the name of a wonderful children’s book.

For a country where the average citizen fills about twelve prescriptions a year1, we have a pretty big stigma on health issues. If that sounds like a lot, then hear this: 15% of us are on antidepressants2, which, by the way, is also the percentage of us who suffer from IBS.

Wait, really?

Yes, really. Your suffering is not at all uncommon. In Mexico – and this can’t say much for their drinking water – 45% of the population suffers from IBS. I’ve already written a bit about about widespread health problems and IBS prevalence here, but in short: You are normal.

And, if you ever don’t feel that way, you can just move to Mexico.


7. It’s Not That Restrictive! (call it a gastronomical adventure)

Of course you feel like your diet is insanely restrictive – you can’t eat what you’re used to eating. So stop eating what you’re used to eating!

Let’s say you’re on a gluten-free diet: you can’t eat wheat, and a few other plants and their derivatives. Oh no! You can’t eat a plant that never influenced much more than Europe.

But I have to eat rice all the time!
So do four billion Asians.

But I have to drink gluten-free sorghum beer!
You mean like they do in Africa, where they enjoy it?

That’s the key, by the way, learning to enjoy it. Consider it a gastronomical adventure and expose yourself daily to other cultures and cuisines that you previously never knew existed. When you find one you like, adopt it as your own.

I adopted south-east Asian. Thai food in particular is world-reknowned for its rich flavor – check out this list of 100 must-eat Thai foods and see how many you can safely eat. If you’re only gluten free, you can still eat almost all of them.


6. “I Can’t Eat Out”

Really, you’re allergic to this?

Of course, it’s not actually about eating out but about being able to have a lively social life. Don’t worry – you can eat out safely practically anywhere; you just can’t do it like you used to. Here are three tips:

Learn your staples. Guess what? Every restaurant (or restaurant genre, rather) serves quite a few safe and standard staple dishes that could never possibly by adulterated in an offensive way. One word: steak. Breakfast? with eggs. Dinner? with potatoes. Lunch? Pretend you still feel like having breakfast.

Become an expert on local restaurants. If you always know of a hot new place (and of course, for your benefit, its’ menu), then other people will let you pick the restaurant, giving you full control of the meal. Which reminds me…

Restaurants are generally flexible. Call ahead of time; explain your situation. Your dietary restrictions can (and will) be catered to discretely.


5. Cooking: Back to the Basics

If you love cooking, and especially if you’re currently on a low-FODMAP elimination diet, it can feel like you spent years honing your craft just to never be allowed to use it again.

Within time, you’ll be blending ingredients masterfully and care-free like the gold old days, but until then, I recommend you have a personal culinary rebirth. Have a love affair with minimalism; go back to the basics. You’ve probably been cooking elaborate dishes for so long that you’ve probably forgotten how good a perfectly poached egg can be. Or how good a perfectly grilled fish is.

Go crazy in the kitchen – experiment with sous vide or blowtorch cooking. Anything to stave off menu monotony.


4. Make it an Intellectual Endeavor

You’ve probably already learned more about nutrition than you ever hoped you’d need to. Why stop there?

Learn everything you can about food (especially your new adopted cuisine) and ingredients. Pretty soon, you’ll never have to ask what’s in a dish or worry for your safety. You’ll know which menu item has hidden breading (I’m looking at you meatballs) and which types of sugars are used in which deserts (Coconut ice cream sounds good if you’re dairy free but it might not be fructose friendly). You’ll be able to tell if noodles are made from rice or wheat from a single glance, or if french fries have been tossed in flour (yes, some restaurants do this).

And once you’ve developed your sixth sense for ingredients, life will be a lot easier. Which is good, because…


3. Your New Diet is Better for You

The most important reason to stick with your restricted diet is that it’s better for you. And soon, you’ll feel healthy and energetic. It’s not just better for you because you’re avoiding your personal poisons, but because it’s pretty hard to eat fast food or processed crap and still abide by your diet. The collateral benefit is reason enough.

Pretty soon, you’ll feel so much better that you’ll never second-guess choosing lasting relief over a temporary pleasure. Which reminds me, I just noticed I probably haven’t had a single piece of candy in the last few months.


2. Treat Yourself

You deserve comfort. Find your guilty pleasure – as long as it doesn’t break your diet – and indulge. Personally, I love the rich aromas and flavors of cocoa, coffee, and tea. I’m low-FODMAP, and these are my sweets.


1. Stop Thinking of it as a Choice

There is a dichotomy among practitioners of restricted diets. We are all, from time to time at social functions, asked “would you like a [insert poison here]?”

But that’s where the commonality ends. Because what we say in response separates us into two groups:

  • “No thanks, I’m not hungry” or “No thanks, I’m on a diet”
  • “No thanks, I can’t.

When you think about how good you feel when you stick to your diet, it’s not a choice – it’s a matter of health. A person with diabetes – or another ailment affected by diet – wouldn’t give in so easily to peer pressure. Never be embarrassed; your issues are out of your control and the person offering you the poison has an issue of their own.

Maybe you should start calling it poison too.

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