Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe: Understanding friends, family with food allergies
I've always been sensitive to food allergies. Many of my friends' children have all sorts of allergies. We'd adjust menus and restaurants to make sure everyone was safe and happy without blinking an eye.
I didn't realize that not everyone understands the importance of being so flexible and accommodating until I began my journey into gluten-free living a bit over a year ago.
I had friends and relatives get upset when I had to decline invitations to events because they were not gluten-free. I'd hear comments like, "Just tell the kitchen, all good kitchens can make it work." Or, "Just don't eat bread." Or, "How hard can this be, really?"
People don't realize how sick someone with food allergies and intolerances can get. From minor symptoms to major life-threatening reactions, food can be quite unfriendly if we don't handle eating correctly, both inside and outside our homes.
From finding a restaurant that can handle the culprit food allergy to learning to live without it for all meals in a day, this isn't just an "I'll skip a cookie today" sort of thing, but a true lifestyle change that takes time and practice. If mistakes can be avoided, the person with the allergy can enjoy eating without worry.
As I was educated about gluten intolerance and gluten allergy, I discovered a world I didn't know existed. This is a world of struggles, triumphs and, as you might imagine, occasional frustration. It isn't easy to adapt to a new lifestyle and learn to eat differently. But as you delve into something like this, you learn you're not alone and that you're part of a much bigger community. It can actually be very empowering.
The initial mental hurdle is, "Gluten, really? Then what's left to eat?" Then there’s an adjustment period where you realize there's a lot to eat, and it's amazing. In fact, I've discovered that I really didn't miss the foods I thought I would, and I have discovered foods I didn't know existed.
People need to understand –– with any food allergy or intolerance –– that these foods make those of us who have the condition sick. Looking back on my history, I now understand why I never really loved pizza or pasta or beer. I used to think it was the sauce or some other ingredient ... now I know it was the gluten.
Now I can eat gluten-free varieties of these items and enjoy them for the first time in my life. It's actually a gift.
So, before you feel sorry for the people you meet who may not be able to eat something you love, remember that food is the enemy to them. There are many other friendly foods they love just as much.
Food is important. It's important for nutrition and for our social lives. But it's no fun when it makes you sick. I'd rather not have something and be healthy and social than have something and feel lousy. Wouldn't you?
Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D., F.A.A.P., is a pediatrician and mother of two from Wayland, Mass. A graduate of Tufts University School of Medicine, Dr. O'Keeffe completed her residency training at New England Medical Center. Dr. O'Keeffe is founder and CEO of Pediatrics Now, www.pediatricsnow.com, and can be reached at email@example.com.