When Food + Family = Drama

When you’re new to being gluten free, you may feel like you’re being a burden to your friends and family, because you have to ask for accommodations. You might feel like you’re “being difficult” or “blowing things out of proportion”. You might even have people telling you that you are.

But the cold, hard truth is that you need to ask for accommodations in order to stay healthy. Is someone with mobility challenges “being difficult” when they ask for a wheelchair? NO.  Is someone with diabetes “blowing things out of proportion” when they control what they eat to maintain their blood sugar levels? NO. Is someone who has a health issue related to gluten being difficult when they ask for gluten-free accommodations? Absolutely not. You are guarding your health, and that’s a good thing.

But there are definitely ways to bring things up that work better and ways that don’t work as well as you’d hope to have these conversations.

We humans are such social creatures. Even the most introverted of us still need contact with other living beings from time to time. And there is an intrinsic connection between community and food. I cannot think of a celebratory gathering that doesn’t include food, from the family gathering around their dinner table and sharing about about their days to celebrating national holidays, food is a part of all of our days, not only to nourish our bodies, but also an important part of gathering together to celebrate and remember.

And when you cannot eat the food at a gathering, it is isolating. It’s one thing if you’re on a diet, and you know that eventually, you’ll be able to join in with everyone else again. It’s something completely different if you have to change the way you’re eating permanently due to a medical condition. Oddly, most people don’t realize that there is a huge difference between the two situations until they’ve been through both, either personally or vicariously with a loved one.

This can lead to conflict, at home, with family and friends, and even at the workplace. The boss who entices you to a weekly meeting with donuts you cannot have. (“Since you don’t want me there, why should I bother showing up?”) The family dinners where everyone is chowing down on fried chicken and mac and cheese, and you are relegated to eating yet another bland salad and just watching and smelling everyone else’s meal. Or even going out to eat at a place where you’re not entirely sure you even trust the water, which is the only thing that may possibly feel safe to consume in the restaurant.

A lot of times, your friends and family members don’t realize that they’re hurting you. Either they think that you are doing a voluntary diet–something they may have been through and think that your situation is tolerable because it will only be for a short while, or they don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) that this situation is non-negotiable for you. (There are also the folks who don’t care, but that’s a whole different topic.)

So how can you make them understand? Well, the truth is, you can’t make anyone do anything. But you can present the facts. 

  • You have a medical condition.
  • It’s not going away. It’s forever.
  • In order to maintain your health with this medical condition, you need to eat foods that are safely gluten-free. 
  • Let them know that this is difficult for you and ask them if they think they can help you in any way.

You need to be clear that you’re in this for the long-haul, not just with your family, but also with yourself. As your friends and family see you continue to hold the line, staying firmly gluten-free over the days and weeks, it will settle into their consciousness that this is a permanent situation and not “just a phase”. It does take some people longer than others, and that’s okay. For the ones who take longer, be sure that you stay firm in your convictions. A lot of times, people are waiting to see you waiver, to see how much you believe in yourself. Once they realize that your gluten free status is not changing, it will become a part of their reality, as much as yours.

During this time, bring safe food for yourself, and as you become more comfortable in making gluten free food, you can bring some to share with your friends and family. You can also continue to ask if there will be anything safe for you to eat (but you might want to still bring a backup, in case they didn’t realize that their soup stock contained gluten.) As they start to realize that gluten free can taste good, they may start trying their own hands at making food for everyone that is safe for you too.

One of the most important things you can do is be open and willing to let them learn with you, if they ask. You never know who will be your biggest supporters, and who has actually already had some experience with being gluten free.

There is so much that goes into being gluten free. It’s so much more than just not eating bread and pasta. If you are looking for some extra support in navigating this new world, send me a message and we can take a look at your situation together.

Stay strong and keep reading your labels!