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I Won't Apologize for Needing a Special Diet Due to My Health Conditions

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Six months ago I changed to a vegan diet for health reasons. The diet has been successful in improving my overall health in astounding ways – not that it has made everything better. I should note that for the most part I have stuck to whole foods, avoiding many of the costly, less nutritious, processed vegan food options.

While the diet has definitely proven to be worthwhile, it isn’t always easy for someone dealing with chronic pain and vertigo. I often feel like I am spending more than half of my spoons preparing meals. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a home-delivered meal program for the disabled that offered vegetarian and vegan options?

I am not talking about meal kit delivery services where much of the prep work is done for you, but you are still required to do the cooking (and the dishes). Those programs typically do offer vegetarian and vegan options, and while great for some, can be too costly and inconvenient for many people with chronic illness; think Meals on Wheels.

I pose the question because I not only once enlisted myself in such a program run by the local hospital, I used to work as the volunteer coordinator for an Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) home nutrition program. In Central Wisconsin, these programs are very meat laden, often serving red meat at least three days per week. But they work with special diets, right? Yes and no.

In my experience, these programs can work with certain common dietary restrictions such as low sodium diets and diabetic options, but request anything more complicated, say a low-residue or low-acid diet, and they fail in some striking ways.

At the time I was having meals delivered, I requested a diet that was both low in sodium, for my kidney health, and a low-acid diet free of artificial ingredients given my doctor’s recommendations for treatment of interstitial cystitis. I soon learned that I shouldn’t expect to receive any such thing. Artificial preservatives, sweeteners and dyes are commonplace with the institutional foods offered through these services. Gravies and sauces are common place, and come out of a jar or can. And if you want a plant-based diet, even if it is prescribed for you by a physician or recommended by your dietician, you can expect a response akin to “does not compute.”

If I wanted to receive the evening meal offered through the home delivered meal program, it would have meant eating sandwiches made with the kind of processed meats that the World Health Organization has identified as posing a similar cancer risk to that of cigarettes and asbestos.

Now I admit, I have numerous dietary restrictions given my many ailments, and I’m a challenge for the most skilled dietitian. However, the programs I have been privy to couldn’t accommodate a lot of people who are just trying their best to avoid allergens, inflammation triggers and foods that are just flat out going to make them less well.

There are some other options; private for-profit businesses that can be contracted through an ADRC, Medicaid or directly, that offer a little more flexibility. One such company is Mom’s Meals. I spoke to a customer service representative to inquire about their services, and while I was pleased to hear that they offer a vegetarian option, I also was not surprised to find out that a vegan option was not available (I had to explain what a vegan diet was to the rep I spoke with).

When I worked for an ADRC nutrition program, I would overhear staff mocking the restricted diets that clients sometimes requested. Oftentimes, the tone was, “she thinks she can’t eat that.” I made it known that such comments were inappropriate, but I suspect this kind of skepticism is fairly common. I know that I have been made to feel that I need to apologize for my food choices. I’ve been told that my diet is inconvenient to accommodate, and have been made to feel as though I’m just being difficult.

If there is one thing that we can learn from Bill Cosby’s incarceration, it is that prisons offer vegetarian diets! Why can’t the disabled be afforded the same courtesy as our nation’s felons?

I doubt I am alone in my frustration. Home delivered nutrition programs are some of the most potentially useful services for people who are disabled due to chronic illness. My hope is that one day they become more inclusive for those on restricted diets.

Photo by Alyson McPhee on Unsplash

Originally published: March 24, 2019
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