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 from the experiences of myself and my patients to help make your therapeutic diet a viable long-term option.
Tactic #7 : Offer an out.
One of the trickiest things about adhering to a therapeutic diet for an extended length of time—and one of the biggest things I spend time helping my patients navigate about it—is the etiquette of it all. The communal nature of how people eat—of which I am a wholehearted fan—means that there are times where our food choices don’t affect only us. When we have special guidelines that we adhere to in eating, that means that other people will have to alter their behavior—either what they cook for us or occasionally how they eat in a restaurant setting. This can place the therapeutic eater in a dilemma: I want to feel better, but I don’t want to be a diva.
Aside from acknowledging the inconvenience of your diet, which is a virtually no-fail way to start the conversation about your needs, another lynch pin of maintaining your social graces while on a therapeutic diet is to offer the person an out. Here’s the thing: you know how YOU don’t want to come off as a jerk? Neither do the vast majority of your acquaintances. When you get an invite to an event where you know it’s going to be a lot of work on the other person’s part to accommodate your needs, giving an out allows the person to save face so that the relationship isn’t sullied by your dietary needs.
Let’s say you’re working on lowering your blood sugar and improving your insulin sensitivity, and you’re in a phase of the plan that’s more intense, where your intake of high glycemic index foods is greatly reduced. You know that when your colleague invites you over to his house for dinner, more than likely, a lot of what’s served will not be on-plan for you. But it’s important to your professional life that you don’t outright decline his offer. What do you do?
You can start the conversation with something like “I’d love to come over, but I have to eat a pretty limited diet because of some health issues. It can be really difficult to prepare the food I need to eat, and I’d hate to put you through the trouble of doing that.” From there you can go a number of ways, depending on your situation and what you’re comfortable with. You can suggest an alternative meal event, such as eating out or if you’re up for it, eating at your own home. You can also select the much-overlooked option of suggesting an alternate activity. Hiking, coffee, fitness classes, beach walks, or, my personal fave, Paint Nite are a few ways to get some face time with someone that aren’t centered on food. If you’re doing a therapeutic diet that’s shorter-term, you can also suggest putting off the engagement till a later date, when you’re finished. Use that last option with care, though—if you’re on a plan to help with your blood sugar, for example, even if there is a less-restrictive phase ahead of you, it probably won’t ever be a good idea for you to participate in an eleven-course dessert tasting, and putting an invite like that off for three or six months can set up an expectation on the other person’s part that you might feel even more obligated to fulfill down the road at the expense of your own health. Be nice to your future self.
This tactic can also be helpful for my patients who are doing an altogether different kind of work with food: intuitive eating. Intuitive eating, rather than focusing on food’s ability to directly affect specific health conditions, focuses on the person’s ability to have a healthy relationship with food and their body. It’s very much about listening to your body. Sometimes, early on in the process, people have identified particular situations that make it particularly challenging to pay attention to their body’s cues. Although the goal of successful intuitive eating work is to empower people to pay attention to their body’s needs in any situation, it can be helpful in the beginning to avoid the situations that pose the biggest obstacle to allowing the person to do this. So if someone has found that they can’t tell when he is full when he eats in a really noisy environment, then I think it’s OK at the beginning to avoid that. It’s great if he can be fully honest about it to the invitation extender (“I’m working on how I deal with food”), but if that doesn’t seem appropriate, a simple “I’ve found I’m just not that comfortable in that kind of place” totally suffices.