I Follow A Very Restricted Diet For My Stomach Issues. Here's How I Deal In Social Situations

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After years of struggling with IBS (first just “stomach issues” and then cycling through diagnoses), I started following the low-FODMAP diet in 2013 after a nutritionist recommended it to me.

In short, that meant cutting out five different kinds of carbs from my diet (fructose, fructans, lactose, polyols, and galactans) in the "elimination phase." From there, I added each one back in strategically to see which I'm personally sensitive to. Turns out my stomach hates fructose. And polyols and some fructans, like wheat. Essentially, this means a laundry list of random-seeming items I can and can't eat — no honey, agave, apples, asparagus, or broccoli, even though bananas, citrus, spinach, and carrots are all fine.

While following this diet has definitely helped my stomach, there are now loads of things I can’t eat.

As my blog FODMAP in the City chronicles, I try to live a normal, busy life, without letting every minute revolve around my food restrictions. But when you’re out in a social situation there’s a whole additional layer of complication to following a restricted diet.

When you skip the bread and alcohol and order just a basic salad, there’s that moment of awkwardness when you just want to say, “Guys, I swear, this isn’t me doing a whole South Beach Diet thing.” Or what about rebuffing that well-meaning friend who keeps offering you delicious-looking desserts that are illegal on the FODMAP diet?

Luckily, I've learned a few different coping mechanisms along the way. Here are a few tips on how to explain your diet — no matter what your food intolerance or restriction — in a social situation:

1. Keep your explanation simple.

When someone offers me a food in passing that goes against my restrictions, I usually try to just say “no, thanks.” Especially if it’s not at a group meal but more of a “want one?” situation, this often is enough.

Even for people who know that I follow some strange IBS-related diet, I still think it’s better to keep it simple. That way you avoid those, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I forgot! I’m offering you something you can’t eat! Oops!” moments. It’s really no big deal. I can just say no to that cookie without making anyone feel guilty for offering it in the first place.

When you can get away with it, a basic “no, thank you” often saves a lot more time and awkwardness.

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2. Take the lead with restaurant suggestions.

Most of my friends have a sense that I follow strange and mysterious diet rules, but it can be overwhelming for them to keep it all straight. And they shouldn’t have to. To avoid protracted conversations that start with, “Oh no, will you have anything to eat there?!” I’ve found it’s often easiest if I simply suggest a few restaurant options myself, from the outset, rather than waiting for friends to suggest options that don’t work so well for me.

It's better to just pop a few Yelp links in an email and let them choose from a few options rather than having to do an awkward veto/counter-suggestion, or ordering a simple side salad with no dressing if their main suggestions end up being garlic- and wheat-filled Italian food.

3. Give them the truth.

Inevitably, some people notice. I was once at a group meal and tried to be subtle while picking out the grilled veggies from the wraps. But one girl — whom I didn't know — not only noticed but commented: “Oh, I see the pattern. I bet you aren’t going to eat the pasta either, right?” My reaction: “…”

It’s uncomfortable when the peanut gallery chimes in about my eating. But when people push certain foods or ask about my reactions to things, I pretty freely answer with the truth, in very broad strokes. My most common line is something along the lines of: “Oh, I’ve got lots of annoying food restrictions to help with a bad stomach. It’s super complicated so it’s not worth going into! Just rest assured that I’m good at finding food options for myself so don’t worry about me.” This tends to go over better with a smile. And often enough, that suffices. There may be a couple cursory follow-up questions, but then it’s over.

I can understand where some people might not want to get into it with others like this, but I personally prefer to just be honest to avoid any weirdness. Also, society often has some judgments about the gluten-free craze, so I generally make a point to note that I’m not just jumping on some trendy health bandwagon but actually doing it because I’ve had GI issues and a nutritionist suggested it. But again, when you can get away with it, a basic “no, thank you” often saves a lot more time and awkwardness.

Some people are curious and want to know more. Maybe it’s a failing on my end because, after a brief, “It really is pretty long-winded. You sure you really wanna know?” I do, in fact, launch into the FODMAP diet and what it’s about.

For my close friends who have witnessed this multiple times, it's boring and they are sick of hearing about it. (Sorry, guys! I guess that’s what close friends are for.) But a solid half of the time, the other party says, “Hmm, I’ve had stomach problems of my own! Has the FODMAP diet helped you? I am going to look into this!”

No matter how you slice it, the whole explaining-why-you’re-eating-weirdly-or-interrogating-the-waiter thing will come with awkwardness. More than anything, I’ve gotten over the hurdle by simply embracing that undeniable fact and doing my best to communicate my food needs to others while going as un-overboard as possible.

Related reads:

A version of this piece originally appeared on FODMAP in the City.

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