health

"I hate the attention": 10 things your friend with food intolerances wants you to know.

No one hates my IBS more than me. Life would be so much simpler if I could eat garlic, onion and gluten (and cauliflower, chickpeas and more than a minimal amount of lactose). Beyond avoiding tasty foods and dealing with painful symptoms, I spend a good chunk of time ensuring my gut issues don’t destroy my social life. 

I don’t want to annoy my friends when they are excited for a delicious feed. I hate the attention a restricted diet brings, and it is awkward explaining the ins-and-outs of my gut health. Not wanting to be a nuisance nor end up sick, I try to meet my dietary needs as discreetly as possible.

Watch: Here's 7 tips to reduce bloating and puffiness. Post continues after video.


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Still, friends try to make my life easier. Occasionally their efforts are helpful, sometimes they are funny, but often I am left embarrassed and hurt. While their hearts are in the right place, their naivety can add to the stress of navigating life with IBS. I end up bloated and socially anxious. Win-win! 

It’s more exciting to hang out when no one’s health is at risk - and I’m sure you don’t want to make life harder for someone you love. I have prepared a (wish)list of things you can do to spend time with your friend in a way that is supportive and sensitive to their dietary and emotional needs. Some of these tips counter a flexible and spontaneous social life but will avoid unnecessarily straining your relationship. 

If you are the friend with the fussy gut, use this list as a prompt to better communicate with your friends. 

Knowledge is power.

1. Not all cafes, pubs and restaurants are created equal.

As a millennial living in Melbourne, most of my social invites centre around food. People assume all food venues cater to dietary needs these days. In my experience, most don’t. 

Whether you’re planning a one-on-one or a larger gathering, tell your friend about the venue in advance so they can check the menu. Alternatively, ask them what places suit their dietary needs. I have a comprehensive Excel spreadsheet of IBS-friendly restaurants stretching Melbourne of all cuisines that I share with friends. It’s much better to discuss and plan ahead of time than leave your friend worried about whether they can actually eat with you. 

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2. Call the venue ahead of time.

If a menu is unclear, I call the venue to clarify whether they can cater to my intolerances. Many times, I have been greeted by overworked hospitality staff who aren’t a fan of my requests. From “We won’t make dishes without onion, we are Italian!” to “We just don’t want you to come.” Even if they are polite, I think they hate me and, although I don’t expect a busy venue to cater to my needs, I dread making the call.

Not harbouring the same anxiety as your friend holds from past experience, offer to call the restaurant on their behalf. It is a huge relief to be told a brief ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about whether a venue is safe from a friend, rather than a stranger on the phone who might lack the same sensitivity. 

3. Pro tip – breakfast is better than dinner. 

Dinner dishes are often made with mysterious sauces, broths and spice mixes prepared ahead of time. These more complex dishes can’t always be remade in busy kitchens for dietary requirements. Alternatively, breakfast usually comes with individual, plain ingredients – avocado, eggs, bread, bacon – than can be swapped in or out without needing to brace for hidden surprises. Breakfast is child’s play compared to the battlefield of dinner. 

"Breakfast is better than dinner". Image: Supplied.

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4. Don’t assume symptoms. 

In Australia, 1 in 5 people will experience irritable bowel syndrome. IBS, in medical lingo, is understood as a group of ongoing symptoms (compared to a disease being an understanding of a distinctive cause). The underlying cause of IBS is unknown. People presenting digestion pain to their doctor are usually given a blanket IBS diagnosis and sent on their way. Point being - your different friends with IBS probably have unique gut issues. Unless they share, you don’t know what they’re experiencing. 

It’s amusing when someone says to me, “You’re eating cheese? I don’t want to make you sprint to the bathroom!” Firstly, I can eat cheese. Secondly, if I eat something I shouldn’t, I won’t be going to the bathroom for a week. In the moment, I am too embarrassed to tell them we don’t all get the runs, nor are we intolerant to the same foods. I will giggle and eat the cheese.  

5. Stop offering remedies or unwarranted advice. 

When I cancel plans, I’m in a foetal position in bed dosed up on painkillers clutching a hot water bottle. I’ll receive a responding text saying, “Awww love! Have a cup of tea/probiotics/do yoga!” I wish a cup of tea would help, but it won’t. I will roll my eyes and turn off my phone. It’s a little passive-aggressive, but I am in pain and don’t have much patience.

Your friend has tried everything under the sun and knows what does and doesn’t work.

If they are in a flare-up, wish them a speedy recovery. If they live alone, ask if they need anything dropped off. Offer empathy, not solutions.

6. Memorise trigger foods and reach out if you need a reminder. 

It makes my heart sing when a friend runs through a recipe or menu and asks if they noted my intolerances correctly. 

When hosting a dinner party, you don’t need to redo the entire menu. Instead, make a single serve of each dish without trigger foods, such as separating some pasta sauce before adding the onion or buying gluten-free crackers to go with the cheese. Remember to ask for the best brands or for advice on substitutes - I often suggest switching onion with sautéed capsicum. 

If you are preparing a table of choices for other guests, it’s not ideal to make one special option for your intolerant friend. If this can’t be avoided, manage expectations by asking them to eat before or bring their own food. It’s better than going hungry! 

On our food podcast What I Eat When, host Silvia Colloca talks to Khanh Ong about the dish he cooks on a first date, plus more juicy recipes. Post continues below.

7. Don’t draw attention. 

“You must be so hungry!” “It sucks you can’t eat anything!” “Omg, you must be so sore.” 

It’s uncomfortable when things don’t pan out and someone can’t eat. But drawing attention to their predicament only makes you feel better. Don’t make your friend feel awkward by kicking up a fuss. They live with IBS every day, and today is no different. They will feel annoyed by the public display of pity, especially if they haven’t disclosed their condition to other people present. 

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Remember, they came to spend time with you despite not being able to eat. Instead say, “I am so glad you came!” and treat them like you would everyone else.  

8. Don’t be the food police.

Oh, the times friends have leapt across the room screaming “GLUTEN!!!” when they’ve seen me take a bite of my boyfriend’s cake.

Intolerances exist on a spectrum. They aren’t you-will-die allergies. Sometimes a bite of a trigger food won’t be catastrophic. Dinner with a gluten base (e.g. pasta or pizza) will destroy me, but a bite of cake is a rare pleasure. 

Your friend knows how much of a food they can eat. It’s their risk to take. Don’t worry about what goes into their mouth.

9. Back up on body comments. 

Women with IBS often get asked when they are due, and many sufferers are fat-shamed. I assume you aren’t insulting your friend’s bloat, but even compliments can be triggering when the body is a site of pain. When I get the ol’, “I wish I was as skinny as you! Look at your waist!” I want to respond, “I hate my stomach, it always hurts!”

The pendulum between severe inflammation and emptying my guts leaves me with a good dose of body dysmorphia. Sometimes I look at people’s pudgy bellies and think of all the happy memories of food they hold and yearn for that freedom. But that is me projecting - someone’s weight doesn’t matter. 

There are many wonderful things about your friend to praise. Their body isn’t one of them. 

10. Take the focus off food.

I love food. But since lockdown ended [in Melbourne], it’s been exhausting navigating social plans that always involve eating. No matter the prep, I risk social anxiety at best and getting sick at worst. 

Next time you catch up with your friend, explore taking the focus off food. Does your friend love films? Nature? Art? Go to the drive-in cinema or a new exhibition or enjoy a hike or long drive. You can each bring your own snacks if needed. An activity where you can enjoy each other’s company without food taking centre stage leaves a lot less room for error and eases the pressure off you both.  

Tahney Fosdike is an arts worker and writer based in Naarm/Melbourne working with Arts Project Australia and the Environmental Film Festival Australia. 

Feature image: Supplied/Getty.