How To Have A Social Life When You're Avoiding Sugar, Gluten, Alcohol, Caffeine, Dairy (You Get The Idea)
As a food writer with allergies, I'm currently living the waking nightmare (I've always been a little dramatic) of doing an elimination diet to figure out the root of my mysterious skin rashes. Not sure what an elimination diet is? Basically, an elimination diet removes foods that are most likely to irritate your body for just a few weeks and gives your body a chance to calm down and focus on healing. Then, you reintroduce them one by one to measure your body's response. It's been a tough past year exploring the source of my rashes. I've been pricked and poked many times to hopefully find that one thing that is causing my "rashies" as I so fondly now call them (yes, my rashes have stuck around so long that they earned their own nickname).
After exhausting my non-diet-related options, I began the process of cutting entire food groups from my diet, including milk and dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans gluten, nightshades, chia seeds, and corn. I also nixed alcohol to spur detoxification of allergen proteins and because it just seemed like the healthy thing to do.
So basically, I was my own "no fun" police.
For a period of time, I was antisocial. All food mildly intimidated me for fear it would cause a breakout. I'd push food around my plate at meals to make it look like I'd eaten and then go home to eat sanctioned, elimination-diet-friendly foods. I spent countless nights in a Google wormhole and community forums, trying to find the cause of my symptoms, rather than out with friends having dinners or drinks. And this was a big problem since I'm a very social person and food is my first love and profession.
I had three options: Hole up in my apartment and watch my social life and friends wither away in the pursuit of clear skin, throw caution to the wind and eat everything in my path and let the rashes come as they may, OR figure out a way to adapt to make both my elimination diet AND social life work. I went for option three. Here are some tips that I used in order to pursue a social life and successfully maintain my elimination diet:
1. Review menus before you go out.
Contrary to popular belief, eating out at a restaurant doesn't have to sabotage your elimination diet. Trainers and nutritionists often give this advice to their clients who are trying to establish healthy habits, and reviewing menus beforehand was key to my success. Instead of being caught totally off-guard with allergen-riddled food (or go hungry), knowing what I could or couldn't have helped me strategize what I would eat. If there were slim pickings, I would prep with a light snack at home beforehand (classic cocktail party hack to avoid OD-ing on hors d'oeuvres) or plan on eating a bit more at home after if I wasn't satiated. At least I knew what I was getting myself into!
2. Be the one who organizes the plans.
When Saturday brunch with the girls is sacred, ditching a much-needed catch-up is not an option. Instead of enviously watching as everyone feasted on eggs Benedict, waffles, and Bloody Marys, I took the lead and planned out the brunch (or dinner) spots that had a few enjoyable elimination-diet-friendly dishes that fit my rigorous limitations or that could be adapted to it by asking for a few modifications. I'd frequently make meals out of just sides or add-ons instead of asking the kitchens to adapt menu items. It was definitely worth the extra effort knowing I could see my friends and feel peace of mind because I wasn't breaking my elimination diet. Plus, everyone loves it when someone else makes the plans.
3. Give mocktails a chance.
Since I wasn't drinking alcohol during the elimination diet, I finally gave mocktails a try. It's much easier to celebrate, commiserate, and dance when you have any drink in hand! And you don't have to settle for plain water or seltzer. Sipping on a drink that had all the bells and whistles of traditional libations in a pretty glass with fun garnishes—sans the detrimental effects of alcohol—made "going out" all the more appealing. And it was without a doubt better than another date with my bed and Netflix.
4. Bring your own snacks or do delivery.
Instead of going out to eat, my girlfriends and I began ordering our own individual delivery or takeout to the residence of a nominated friend and meeting there to hang out and nosh. I'm actually not sure why we hadn't been doing it this way before. It was a win-win: Every person got to order exactly what she wanted, I was safe from ruining my elimination diet, and we all saved so much money (and forwent the labor of cooking). We practically had our own dinner parties catered. Sometimes I would even bring my own elimination-diet-friendly prepared foods and desserts from home.
5. Try non-food-related activities.
For me, the majority of my socializing revolved around food and drink. Going through the elimination diet was a real eye-opener: I really needed to find some non-food-related cultural activities to do with my friends. We began trading (some) brunches for a fun workout class instead, visiting the bevy of New York City museums (I am still ashamed of how many I had not been to), or simply popping into one another's apartments a la Friends to chat on the couch.
The elimination diet can feel really overwhelming at the beginning; it threatens to separate you from your favorite foods, drinks, rituals, and activities that you rely on for comfort and a sense of community. But keeping your social life up while on an elimination diet is possible; it's just a matter of adjusting expectations and rolling with the punches.
Marisel Salazar is a restaurant, food, and travel writer with a love for nutrition and fitness who came to New York by way of Panama, Hawaii, and Japan. She is a regular contributor to Michelin, INSIDER, VinePair, Tasting Table, PureWow, nycgo.com and Martha Stewart Living. She was the former food editor at Melting Butter, and has a bachelor's degree in communication from Cornell University.