What 'Are You Hungry?' Means to Someone With Gastroparesis

“Are you hungry?”

“Do you want a snack?”

“What do you want for dinner?”

“Would you like fries with that?”

“Can I take your order?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Don’t you want something to eat?”

“Are you hungry?”

“Are you hungry?”

Food is something that is constantly being offered. It’s an integral part of social interactions, an important staple in someone’s daily routine, and a necessity for survival.

Also, food is delicious. Cooking, eating, enjoying the process and consumption of a meal with your friends or family, is fun.

But to someone with gastroparesis like me, food can often feel like a burden, an enemy, or an inescapable reminder of the reality of their health.

Gastroparesis (GP) is a functional motility disorder that affects the digestive system. It basically means that your stomach is paralyzed, and therefore cannot digest food properly – or at all. Although the symptoms and severity differ from patient to patient, a person with GP can experience any or all of the following symptoms: Nausea, abdominal pain, acid reflux, bloating, feeling of fullness, extreme weight loss, vomiting, and complications of malnourishment.

Many people with gastroparesis either cannot eat at all, and receive nutrition via a feeding tube or total parenteral nutrition (TPN), but other GP warriors are able to tolerate a small list of food. Again, this varies from person to person, and is constantly changing as symptoms change, or complications of GP (flares, bowel obstructions, etc) force changes.

Personally, I am currently able to tolerate small amounts of pureed foods (think soup, mashed potatoes, or pudding), and some solids, like animal crackers or soda crackers. I’m very sensitive to strong flavors, and cannot ingest anything with dairy, eggs, or meat in it due to allergies and an inability to digest those foods.

When my friends get together for lunch, or meet up for coffee, or go see a movie, I can’t eat with them. I can drink a latte if it has soy or almond milk in it, and I typically carry a nutritional meal replacement drink in my backpack, but I haven’t been able to actually eat with my friends in years.
It was a difficult adjustment, but my friends were understanding and empathetic. They have never made me feel inadequate, or left out. They are understanding and compassionate, which is something I am constantly thankful for.

But going into a restaurant, or hanging out with a new friend for the first time, the inevitable question, “Are you hungry?” is posed at some point.

Each time I get asked that, I get nervous. Should I tell the members of my group project, the old high school teacher I met for coffee, my friend’s mom, the waiter, that I cannot eat anything they might offer? Should I politely decline, and let them draw whatever conclusions they want to?

Should I make an excuse for why I can’t eat? Do I want this person to know my diagnosis? Is it fair for me to feel judged if I do not share that information, but uncomfortable revealing something so personal?

It’s a loaded question with no right answer for a gastroparesis patient, and for me it serves as an upsetting reminder of the limitations of my disease. The fact that it’s a question I cannot escape upsets me even more. No matter how open and honest I am, or how carefully I choose which situations to put myself in, someone will inevitably ask me if I want something to eat.
It isn’t a malicious question, but it has a malicious impact on how I view myself and my disease.

The conclusion I have come to about how to handle being asked about my dietary habits is that I can share information when I’m comfortable with it, and simply turn down food with no explanation if I don’t want to confide my diagnosis in someone. I used to come up with excuses, or order food to appear “normal,” but those behaviors only made my anxiety surrounding my disease worse.
Food is inescapable, and I do not want my disease and the consequent dietary restrictions to negatively impact how I view something as important as food.

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