Food issues—allergies, sensitivities and whatnot—are not disabilities per se, but many people in this audience deal with them because they often go hand in hand with autoimmune disorders, rare diseases, mental health problems, chronic inflammation—our bodies are a complex web of functions and when one part is off, the effects often ripple. Is it any surprise that the fuel we give our bodies influences the way they work?
I’m writing about food issues today because of a radio ad I heard in the car last week. I think it was for Hotels.com, but to be fair, I haven’t been able to find anything about it online to verify that. I wasn’t paying close attention to the commercial, I was watching for my turn and waiting impatiently for the next song. The line that caught me, though, was at the end, when the announcer finished a diatribe with “so you don’t have to listen to Becky talk about her alleged food allergies.” You could hear the eye roll.
This brought up a mix of emotions, all of them negative. I have both food allergies and food sensitivities—there is a difference, and explaining it would take time and attention away from my message. It’s enough today to say that I react badly to a long list of things.
Then we have the food- and/or digestion-related diseases like Crohn’s and celiac disease. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on these, but I’ve seen a dear friend with celiac disease tortured by a full-body rash because of cross-contamination with gluten. She maintains a clean area in her family kitchen where only her food is prepared with dedicated utensils and dishes.
Food is more complicated for more people than it’s ever been. We’ve moved beyond the fad diets of the 80s and 90s to a greater understanding of nutrition, and we’ve broken into factions based on our different bodies and philosophies. We have vegans, paleos and ketos, all with conflicting requirements. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are prevalent enough that every meal at any event has to include a gluten-free option.
It’s one thing to respect a person’s adherence to a dietary doctrine like paleo, or a vegan’s genuine conscientious objection to eating animal products. When it comes to medical issues associated with food, it’s not optional. These issues are real and they profoundly affect our lives.
Yet it’s considered fair game for comedians. Back in the 90s when people were just becoming aware of lactose intolerance, Dennis Miller wisecracked that they don’t have lactose intolerance in Ethiopia (then affected by famine), implying that it was an imagined first-world affliction. And it is, in that modern life demands a high level of mental and physical function. If you lived in a famine-ravaged country, you would feel terrible all the time from hunger, but you would not be going to work at Google to write code for smartphone apps. If something you ate were making you sick, you might not even know it. Here in the USA, you know when you’ve been thrown off your game and you’ll track down the cause and learn to avoid it. The comparison with third-world countries doesn’t make our issues ludicrous.
All that said, a huge pet peeve of mine is the conflation of real food issues with nutrition fads. Listen to the conversation in any modern office lunchroom and you’ll hear more misinformation than you’ll get online all day. Engage with these people at your own risk—once you’ve told them your own food issues, they’ll police your plate. “I thought you said you were allergic to eggs; why did you take a cookie?” And I’m off on a lengthy explanation of exposure levels when what I really want to say is “mind your own plate, you tedious busybody—did I question anything you took?” When the conversation inevitably runs to food infirmities, I forcefully change the subject and I leave the table if they don’t get the hint. I just refuse to have that pointless conversation for the umpteenth time. It took years of trial and error to get to a point where I can eat what’s in front of me with confidence—let me enjoy it, please.
Food police also like to advise you on how to cope. Preserved meats are a huge problem for me; I react badly to the curing agents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to work lunches where the one vegetarian pizza disappeared before I got to the table, and people who could have eaten pepperoni without reacting leave me with no lunch. “Pick it off,” they say. The trigger is in the meat juice, which soaks into the crust during the baking process. I might actually be better off eating the meat than the bread beneath it. There’s no picking out contaminants for genuinely sensitive people (to say nothing of the indignity of piling a bunch of rejected items at the edge of your plate like a finicky toddler).
When I’m invited to friends’ homes for meals, they always want The List. I don’t do that anymore. It would take them days to learn to shop for me, and I won’t be that high-maintenance. I ask them to tell me what they propose to serve, and I let them know if that works for me. If not, I suggest something not too different that would only take a little adjustment to the shopping list.
I love the Canadian show Heartland, but one episode upset me a bit—when Lou’s former coworkers from New York came to her dude ranch, and one friend, McKenzie, asked where the nearest gluten-free bakery was. Eye rolls all around, they don’t have gluten-free food in Hudson, Alberta. As McKenzie announced allergy after allergy, a picture emerged of a high-maintenance hypochondriac. At one point, Lou lost it and said, “If you give me one more reason why you can’t function like a normal human being, I’m going to hurl!”
I’ve been on the receiving end of that. It brings out the bully in people I thought were my friends. I don’t like to be seen as a delicate flower, so I take responsibility for my own feeding. I carry safe protein bars in my purse. I eat something substantial before a party, knowing I’ll eat lightly there if at all. If I meet friends at a restaurant, I pre-screen the menu online before I go, to narrow it down to the 2 or 3 choices that might work for me. That way there’s no flustered series of questions with the server. I think everyone should take this approach and not expect the world to conform to your needs. You can certainly educate the food service industry in the hope that they will, but if you live in a state of readiness to be pleasantly surprised, that’s much better.
Have you ever been insulted or belittled because of your food issues? Tell us about that.