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Eating in the UK vs. the US as Someone With Dietary Restrictions

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My mom is English, but I grew up in the US, with all of its similarities and more importantly, all of its differences. I am currently escaping the incapacitating heat of northern Virginia and spending time with my family – who is normally 3,000 miles away at any given moment – for the full three months I have off from obligations at school. I have been in London for a few weeks now and there are several key differences in how people react to my illness, and more so, in how my illness interacts with the society here.

The first, and most relieving thing, is that I have not once had anyone tell me how “I can heal myself,” because they have all listened when I have explained that I have tried nearly everything.


The next difference is the one that has made the greatest impact on me though. I can eat so much here! As someone who goes through life with seven or eight dietary restrictions (honestly there are so many I can almost never just list them off – I always forget one or the other and I only remember it when someone says, “Oooo, can you eat this?”), all of my meals have a certain extra level of complication. But in the US, I can hardly eat anything. The most restricting off-limits substance is sugar. I can’t have it or I get all kinds of blood sugar spikes, then rapid drops, then near immobilizing pain. This means I have to read the back of every single thing I pick up off the shelf to make sure there is no sugar or any of its hyper-processed variants within it. But there’s another restriction – nothing artificial either.

Back home, it is extraordinarily expensive to purchase foods that are free of things my body cannot process correctly. But here, I am finding a whole new world of food! First, there is a much higher abundance of food that is natural and does not contain sugar. But also, it is so easy to understand the labels. At home, few people can go and buy any food for me other than myself, because all of the things I cannot consume are hidden behind so many other names. That’s not allowed here. In the UK, I can find food easily and I do not have to hesitate or not have something because there’s something in it I don’t recognize, which means it’s best to avoid it.

Of course, there is that kind of food here – the things I can’t eat, etc. But it’s much easier to pick it out and avoid those only, while having the opportunity to eat all kinds of wonderful things I haven’t been able to eat for almost two years!

The society here expects it to be easy to understand what they are putting into their bodies because it is the fuel they run on, and if it’s not healthy, they’re not healthy. In the US, things are hidden behind pseudonyms and words we usually can’t pronounce unless we have a degree in chemistry.

In the time I have been here I haven’t once had someone say to me, “Oh my God, that takes so much self-control” or “Ugh, I couldn’t do it. I think I’d die.” It doesn’t take self-control. It takes self-respect. You never know how strong you are until you have no choice. But you always have the choice to make healthy decisions, even if you are dealt a genetic card dubbing you “unhealthy.”

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Thinkstock photo via mrrobotonur07.

Originally published: June 21, 2017
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