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To the People With Dietary Restrictions I Used to Call 'High-Maintenance'

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I’m that person now.

There was a time when I didn’t understand people like me; I judged them instead. Not the allergic ones, just the “sensitive” ones. So high maintenance, I called them. So picky. So annoying! 

I’m talking about the gluten-dairy-egg-soy-yeast-sugar (etc.)-free people.

Any time these human beings join other human beings for a meal (i.e. every day), it can feel like a colossal drag for all parties involved. This is particularly true when any holiday rolls around; dietary quirks become as obnoxious and hard-to-hide as a buzzing neon sign. In many cultures, it’s the typical thing to build a mile-high plate of food, giving zero thought to the ingredients in Aunt Sue’s world famous cheesy potatoes. But when you don’t cooperate with norms, when you deviate from the ease of a buffet line, people make decisions about who you think you are, often without asking you a single question.

My humbling experience of needing to drastically restrict my own menu has challenged my prior assumptions and chipped away at my ignorance. After living as both the misinformed and the misunderstood, here are my two major take-aways concerning __-free eating:

1. If it’s irritating to watch and/or accommodate people who eat like this, it’s even more irritating to be the person who needs to eat like this.

2. Food can cause a lot of harm in the human body, and it can bring a lot of healing, too.

For the record, I didn’t join an unnecessary fad. I’m not a snobby, superior eater (unless brown rice cakes have moved up in the world). I didn’t change my diet for religious reasons. I’m not doing it to draw attention to myself, to join a movement, or to make life more difficult for the dinner host and the restaurant server (P.S. I’ll just have an ice water, please).

These days, I eat as I do because my body is sick. When I don’t eat this way, it’s even sicker. I have an incurable illness, and the only treatment is symptom management; eating this way happens to manage a few of my symptoms. Listening to my body enough to learn what it needs and what it doesn’t tolerate is smart medicine. Many people who eat __–free have picked up on this wisdom and have begun to call it what it is: Good self-care.

And, it is high maintenance. I’ll just say it: My lifestyle is inconvenient! It takes a lot of planning, work, and flexibility for me to eat the way I eat.

I’m also picky, but that’s the point. I have to be, or it doesn’t help me.

Annoying? Of course it’s annoying! I bring my own food with me like a squirrel preparing for winter. I read every label and question every friend and cook like I’m the food police. I decline dozens of invitations to try so-and-so’s latest baking recipe, which means I often choose my body’s health over someone’s thoughtful gift. And you know what? It’s OK.

I eat this way for quality of life. I eat this way for my present and for my future. I eat this way for myself, but also for my friends and family, who deserve me at my best, and who want the best for me. If this means I’ll be the buzzing neon sign in the room, well, where do I plug in?

To my fellow “high-maintenance,” “picky” and “annoying” eaters: I’m sorry I used to look down my nose at you. I wish I had asked more questions instead. We eat the way we eat for different reasons, and I respect them all. I trust we know what’s best for our own bodies and what’s harmful for them too.

If you’re a __-free food “freak,” and you wear it like a shameful stain, don’t. Instead, wave your freak flag along with me, because whether we like it or not, we’re that person at the party, the dinner, and the restaurant. Let’s not be sorry about it, OK? Let’s just know we’re worth it.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Originally published: January 3, 2017
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