Life with a Food Sensitivity: Would You Like Shame with That?

chalkboard with gluten nuts and dairy crossed offMeg Ryan, in the film When Harry Met Sally, led the way for people who are particular about their food. Unfortunately, that was done for comedic effect, and the joke was on her: Listen to this crazy person being too needy about how her food is prepared.

In the ensuing decades, all kinds of food sensitivities and allergies have popped up. Parents can’t bring peanut butter cookies to their kids’ classrooms anymore, and when asking someone out for dinner you need to consider more than whether he or she is a vegetarian.

Adjusting to Lifestyle Changes

Once you discover a sensitivity or food allergy, your life is altered. Suddenly, life can feel like one big bagel buffet to a person newly diagnosed with celiac disease. Anyone who has been on any kind of diet knows that the minute you’re told something is off limits, its appeal increases a hundred-fold.

After the first few hours (or days or weeks), the initial shock should dissipate and you’ll have time to do some research. You can reach out to others who have been managing this issue and hopefully discover some friendly places to eat out. (If you haven’t done this yet, get Googling.) More than likely, there is someone who has gone through this and started a blog about it. Educating yourself is the most important step. You’re going to have to eat—probably in the next few hours—so you’re going to want to find what doesn’t make you sick as soon as possible. Self-discipline is essential to any diet, whether the goal is to lose weight, lower your cholesterol, or calm your gastrointestinal tract.

Other People’s Reactions

Now that the change has had a chance to marinate and you’ve discovered the best place to buy hemp milk or rice bread crumbs, it’s time to deal with other people. Anyone who has been diagnosed with or self-diagnosed a food sensitivity is familiar with the stares and the eye rolling once the wait staff turns to them for their order. If it weren’t for the very real physical consequences of a gluten un-free meal, many would just point to the menu and be done with it.

Some strong-stomached people I’ve spoken with express annoyance that they are being subjected to new diet “crazes,” and others just don’t understand why some people can’t handle certain foods. They don’t get it, and seem to not want to try. If we’re honest, we might even have been one of these people prior to our discovery of our own bodies’ changing needs. Necessity has helped us discover greater stores of empathy for others—and, hopefully, ourselves.

A Common Stumbling Block: Shame

When a buddy scoffs when asked if there is wheat in the gravy, or when you’re mocked for inquiring about dairy-free alternatives, it’s a good idea to get in touch with what you’re feeling instead of reacting defensively. A common response to a dietary change is shame: “Oh, I’m becoming one of ‘those’ people. I’m now the guy that is going to make other people have to work harder to accommodate me.” Shame may continue to underlie a lot of our motivations, especially if we are not fully aware of it.

Shame comes up a lot in therapy sessions. It is even what keeps some people out of therapy offices and on the Internet. Being able to move through this can give you valuable information: you can survive, and you might even find more happiness once you start being self-sufficient in having your needs met.

You see, what we often forget is that shame most often pops up when we are choosing to take care of ourselves in a way that differs from what society expects. It’s what appears when we show our individuation and when we take a step, no matter how small, away from the crowd. Shame can be a strong reminder that we are making a choice, and we get to decide whether it is worth it.

Some points if you are experiencing a food sensitivity:

  • Take a breath and know that you are taking care of yourself.
  • It may lessen some anxiety if you have some directives prepared. Example: “I’m unable to eat dairy. Can you tell me if this is cream-based?”
  • Try not to apologize—you’re not doing anything wrong.
  • Follow up a snide comment with something like, “I don’t like having to limit my diet, either.”
  • Be appreciative of others’ sensitivity to yours. Example: “Thanks for being patient.” Note: not an apology.

If you’re a friend of a person with a food sensitivity:

  • Ask about it if you’re interested. The person may appreciate the opportunity to talk about this change. There can be a thin line between showing curiosity and judgment. Know which you’re expressing because the other person is expecting the latter.
  • Don’t feel you have to limit your own eating habits, and don’t apologize when you offer a bite of your pasta. Just say, “Oops!”
  • Remember: your friend is just as hungry as you are.

Happy eating!

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Billy

    Billy

    September 2nd, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    I have to tell ya that those of us with no allergies or sensitivities to any foods see those who are as kind of, well, weird. Where did all of this come from?
    I never used to know anyone who suffered from food allergies and now you can brely meet two people without one of them having something going on with their diet so they can’t have this or that.
    It’s crazy and it has to be something that we are doing wrong in society as a whole, today, because this just seems like a completely new phenomenon to me, because this was unheard of even twenty or so years ago.

  • Dillon

    Dillon

    September 2nd, 2014 at 4:08 PM

    Well I have celiac disease and it can be hard to even go out to eat sometimes without feeling embarassed so please don’t judge me over something that I have no control over. I handle it the best way that I can and in a way that does not infringe on anyone else so what difference does it make to you?

  • Alison

    Alison

    September 3rd, 2014 at 4:01 AM

    Why do we think that it is ok to ridicule these types of allergies or sensitivities when others are off limits?

    My son is deathly allergic to peanuts. I know that this may be a new thing to soem people but we have been fighting this with him since he was an infant. We can’t help that he has this allergy. All we can do is try to keep him away from foods that are not safe for him to eat.

    Why should he be ostracized over something that he can’t help, and why should I have to feel bad for wanting to keep him safe?

  • Chris

    Chris

    September 3rd, 2014 at 7:00 AM

    Billy: They were always there just not diagnosed. You would have people who were always grumpy or spending way too long on the toilet or always sick.there are varying levels of allergies beyond celiac peanut allergies which we all know of. Even today doctors don’t think about food allergies and will usually look at compartmentalizing someone into other boxs because it works statistically.

  • Billy

    Billy

    September 3rd, 2014 at 12:02 PM

    I know that there were probably many cases that were not diagnosed but you can’t tell me that there aren’t other things going on that are driving up the numbers? Like theings that are eating that are over processed or maybe even doctors looking to give a diagnosis to someone who won’t be happy without one, even if it is right or not?

  • jeremy

    jeremy

    September 4th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    I have IBD and believe me when I tell you just how hard that is to be aorund new people when the worng thing hits me at the wrong time. But I have learned a little better how to manage it over the years, what to eat and not eat, how long I have until it could rear it’s ugly head, and even the people that I can trust to support me and those who think that it is all a joke. You start to weed out some of the things, food and people included!, that you know are not right for you and there is part of your solution right there.

  • tucker

    tucker

    September 7th, 2014 at 5:09 AM

    I don’t super care what other people think about my sensitivities or what I have to eat. Do I eat what they think that I should eat and them I feel miserable or do I eat the things that I know I am supposed to eat and feel great? Not a very hard decision for me.
    I think that other people who will also get causght up in this cycle of resentment and shame are those who are trying to lead a healthy lifestyle in the midst of gluttons. OKay that might be alittle harsh but you can see my point. They are always having to order grilled not fried, not have the extra drink or appetizer and your friends make you feel guilty.
    I have lived this, done this. Don’t be guilted into making decisions that you will regret. Make the ones that are only going to be beneficial to you… that sounds like a pretty good life lesson all the way around don’t you think?

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