Living With Dietary Restrictions: Focus on What You CAN Have (Part 1)

Living With Dietary Restrictions: Focus on What You CAN Have (Part 1)

Living With Dietary Restrictions: a.k.a. How to cope with a therapeutic diet.

This is one of the most common issues that surfaces for my patients: how to actually live, day in and day out, on a therapeutic diet. For so many of my patients, it seems like a dream to learn that some chronic, nagging health concern can be addressed simply by changing how they eat. Hallelujah! Until, that is, they realize how challenging it can be to adhere to their dietary prescription in many real-life situations. Allergens, blood sugar issues, detox, whatever…I speak from experience when I say that therapeutic diets can be tough! This series will share the best of what I’ve learned to help make your therapeutic diet a viable long-term option.

Tactic # 3: Focus on what you CAN have. 

This tactic is two-pronged. One prong has to do with your own thinking (helping yourself not to feel deprived), and the second has to do with your communication (making it simple for others). 

Prong one: think about what you CAN have.

What a wonderful opportunity to be able to address your health concerns through diet! Lucky you! Yes, I did see that eye roll. Let’s be real: while you may be grateful about whatever benefit a therapeutic diet provides you, no matter how you slice it, it’s pretty hard to stick to a set of eating restrictions and not feel at least occasionally deprived. 

I am not here to minimize your feelings on the matter. But may I gently suggest that dwelling on this feeling might not be helping you? It’s in the nature of the human brain to latch on to perceived deficits and stay fixated until the situation is rectified. In many ways, that feature helps us. But in this case, you might do well to use the advantage of having an evolved brain to redirect your thinking. You may ultimately feel like you’re suffering less as a result. 

It might be true that you can’t eat a certain treat while you’re on a specific plan. And it might even be your FAVORITE treat. But is it really the ONLY treat you like? Or the only food you like? Most people like enough variety of foods that, if they’re open minded enough to let themselves realize it, there are still plenty of things available to them that they do like. The same thing is true for your favorite work lunch, movie snack, dinner out, holiday meal, whatever. It does happen sometimes that a healing diet will take your favorite, most orgasm-inducing food off the menu. But there is virtually always something else that you do at least like. Yes, you might have to research, plan ahead, experiment, or otherwise shift gears a little. But another really great feature of human beings is their incredible adaptability. You’re creative! You can change. I won’t be so obnoxious as to suggest that you might come to like one of these replacement items even BETTER than the original, making it the NEW favorite, but I will say stranger things have happened, even to myself.

Sometimes it’s not so much about what else you can EAT as what else you can HAVE. I will grant you that this is a harder mental leap to make. But if you’re really having a hard time getting your head around the idea of a therapeutic diet, I’d suggest at least attempting it. Humans are wired to derive a great amount of pleasure from food—that’s how we’ve survived as a species. It’s a good thing. We deserve to have pleasure every day, and if we can get some amount of that all-important dopamine release from something as simple as carrying out a basic survival function like eating, then yahtzee! That’s good for the overall happiness index of the world.

But I do acknowledge that sometimes a therapeutic diet feels like it takes every last good thing off the menu. If so, it might be worth trying to get a little Zen about it: what ELSE gives you pleasure? A good night’s sleep? Time with your family? Snuggling with your pet? Volunteering? A creative outlet? Great movies? Sex? A stupid game on your phone? Dressing in great clothes? Gossip magazines? A professional shave? A pedicure? It doesn’t have to be noble—it’s OK if curing cancer and ending world hunger don’t make your list. The point is to identify as many of those pleasure-inducing things, big or small, and then cram your life full of them on a daily basis. There are a great many delicious things in life. I will note that if I have a patient who tries this and still has a hard time finding anything else that gives him pleasure, or gives him anywhere as much pleasure as food, sometimes a chemistry tweak is required. Usually we can tinker with supplements or meds and get the person feeling like the world is a bit rosier (and then usually the dietary restrictions don’t feel so awful either). 

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Photo courtesy of Joe Penniston.

Next up: Prong 2.