How to support friends and family who have dietary restrictions
Rachel Dyckman
Rachel DyckmanRegistered Dietitian

How to support friends and family who have dietary restrictions

Published on January 16, 2023

Communicating dietary restrictions to others can be challenging and often uncomfortable. If you have a significant other, family member, or friend with dietary restrictions, here are a few tips to best accommodate them.

Ask Questions

There are many reasons why someone might have dietary restrictions. Some dietary restrictions may be due to food allergies or food intolerances, whereas some individuals follow a specific diet due to personal preference or medical, ethical, or religious reasons. It’s difficult to accommodate someone with dietary restrictions if you do not know exactly what their restrictions entail. Asking questions to clarify what the individual can and cannot eat and drink, and to learn of any other important information, will help you accommodate them as best you can. For example, if someone has a food allergy, you’ll want to know about the severity of the allergy. Does the individual simply have to avoid consuming the allergenic food, or is the allergy so severe that the individual cannot safely be in the same room as the food?

If someone has a food intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, cross-contamination is likely not a concern for them. Unlike food allergies, which are immune reactions to proteins in food, food intolerances occur when someone has difficulty digesting certain foods or food components. Therefore, those with food intolerances are not at risk for a potentially life-threatening reaction if their food is prepared in close proximity to something they are intolerant to. Nonetheless, if someone with a food intolerance consumes a food they are intolerant to, they may feel extremely ill and experience significant adverse symptoms, such as abdominal cramping, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.  

Some dietary restrictions are rather nuanced and require explanation. For example, someone with an intolerance to fructans, a fermentable carbohydrate found in wheat, may avoid consuming most wheat-based products. However, unlike a gluten intolerance, gluten allergy, or Celiac disease, those with a fructan intolerance are able to tolerate slow-leavened sourdough bread made from wheat. This is because the sourdough fermentation process eliminates the fructans found in wheat flour. Slow-leavened sourdough bread will still contain gluten, however, so depending on the component of wheat that an individual is intolerant to, they may or may not be able to eat sourdough wheat bread.  

Specific diets may also require clarification, as the manner in which someone follows a special diet for medical or religious reasons, or out of personal preference, can vary. If someone is vegetarian, for instance, it is helpful to know whether or not they consume eggs and dairy, as there are different subtypes of the vegetarian diet. Similarly, there are varying degrees of the kosher diet and other religious diets, so understanding how strictly the individual observes kosher dietary laws or other religious dietary principles is crucial in accommodating them.

Show Your Support

Regardless of the reason why someone has dietary restrictions, it is never helpful or productive to question them in a condescending manner, make unsolicited remarks about their diet, or single them out and draw attention to their restrictions in front of others. Eating with dietary restrictions is challenging on its own, but navigating relationships and social situations with dietary restrictions can be a significant stressor. To avoid contributing to this stress and help the individual feel at ease, ask how you can best support them. Perhaps you can research restaurants that both of you can enjoy together, or cook a meal together that is compliant with their restrictions and in line with both of your taste preferences. While you certainly are not obligated to take on the other person’s dietary restrictions yourself, trying some of their food might help them feel supported and you may even find that it’s quite tasty! Additionally, if the individual has expressed they miss eating a certain food that you are able to eat, perhaps you can find an alternative that you both can enjoy together.

Hosting a Gathering

Social gatherings involving food can be difficult to navigate for those with dietary restrictions. When you aren’t able to participate in a meal or food-centered activity, it’s easy to feel left out of the fun. If you are hosting, consider speaking with the individual beforehand to learn how you can best accommodate them. If other guests are bringing dishes, it’s helpful to request that everyone label their dishes with the ingredients they contain, so those with dietary restrictions can more easily decipher which items may or may not be suitable for them to consume.

Consider setting up a “make your own” station, where different meal components are separated out, such as a taco bar, salad bar, chili bar, or sandwich station. This makes it easier for those with dietary restrictions to avoid certain ingredients, but enables them to still participate in the meal.   

If one of your guests has a food allergy, it is safest to serve food on disposable plates and use disposable utensils, cups, and napkins to help alleviate worry about cross-contact with allergens. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands before handling anything that the individual may come into contact with. Allowing the individual to serve themselves first can also help to minimize accidental cross-contamination that often occurs when others begin serving themselves.

If your guest has a severe food allergy and you are not able to avoid cross-contamination in your home, they may be most comfortable bringing their own food. Understand that this is a medical necessity and does not reflect a lack of trust in you or your cooking skills. If your guest has Celiac disease and your kitchen is not gluten-free, for example, they might accidentally ingest gluten particles invisible to the naked eye, which can result in damage to their intestinal lining. Similarly, if you keep peanut butter in your kitchen and eat it frequently but are hosting a guest with a severe peanut allergy, serving them food prepared in your kitchen may place them at risk for developing anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.

Dining Out

When dining out with someone who has dietary restrictions, allowing them to take the lead on selecting a restaurant with menu options they can eat, may help alleviate worry. If you are selecting the restaurant, try looking up menus beforehand to see if they offer dishes that the individual is able to eat. If necessary, you can call the restaurant to inquire about cross contamination, which is particularly important for those with food allergies or Celiac disease. You may also inquire about whether or not the restaurant is able to make certain substitutions so the individual is best able to partake in the meal.

For certain dietary restrictions, there may be restaurants in your area devoted to that specific restriction. For example, some cities have restaurants that are entirely gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, kosher, and more that you can try together, eliminating the need to look up menus or call the restaurant beforehand.

You can also use the Fig app to find restaurants and menu items that likely work for various medical diets and food allergies.

Living With Someone Who Has Dietary Restrictions

If your partner or roommate has dietary restrictions that require avoidance of cross-contamination, consider reserving a portion of your kitchen as a designated allergen-free food preparation area. You may also need to have a separate set of cups, plates, utensils, pots, and pans for the individual to use, to further reduce risk for cross-contamination. If your partner or roommate has a particularly severe allergy, keeping your home free from the allergen as a safety precaution and only consuming the allergenic food outside of your home reduces risk for allergic reactions. Additionally, it’s important to check ingredient labels when grocery shopping, to be sure you aren’t accidentally bringing home an allergenic food or beverage. The Fig app can help you and your partner or roommate do this with ease!

Suggesting Activities That Do Not Involve Food

Lastly, making an effort to suggest social activities that don’t involve food is a great way to spend time with someone who has dietary restrictions, worry-free. This can mean going to a movie, concert, or comedy show, playing a game or sport, going for a hike, taking a workout class, checking out a new museum exhibit, volunteering together, and much more. While food is often tied to bringing people together, it certainly is not the only way to connect with others.

Common Dietary Restrictions:

Some common dietary restrictions to be familiar with include but are not limited to:

  • Vegan: excludes all animal products and animal-derived ingredients including dairy, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and depending on the individual, honey may be excluded as well.
  • Vegetarian: excludes meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, but may include eggs and/or dairy depending on the individual. Honey also may or may not be excluded.
  • Pescatarian: excludes meat and poultry, but includes fish and seafood
  • Gluten-free: excludes foods containing the protein gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, and in foods containing ingredients derived from these grains. While one may follow a gluten-free diet for a variety of reasons, those with Celiac disease or an allergy must strictly adhere to a gluten-free diet and avoid ingesting anything that may be at risk for cross-contamination.
  • Dairy-free: excludes all forms of dairy including milk and milk-based products derived from mammals.
  • Lactose-free: excludes lactose-containing foods, such as milk and milk-based products. Those avoiding lactose may consume lactose-free or low-lactose dairy products such as lactose-free milk and aged cheeses.
  • Low FODMAP: a therapeutic elimination diet protocol often used to help manage IBS and SIBO. It excludes foods containing certain types of carbohydrates that are fermentable by our gut bacteria. Some common high-FODMAP foods that are avoided on the low FODMAP diet include but are not limited to: onion and garlic (including onion and garlic powder), lactose, wheat and other gluten-containing grains, certain vegetables, certain fruits, cashews and pistachios, and most beans and legumes.
  • Low-histamine: a therapeutic diet followed by those with histamine intolerance or Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). This diet excludes foods and beverages rich in histamine, such as foods that are very ripe, aged or fermented foods and beverages, certain fruits and vegetables, artificial preservatives and dyes, vinegar, and canned foods such as sardines and canned tuna, among others. Those on a low histamine diet are also advised to consume primarily fresh foods, and avoid leftovers that have been sitting in the fridge for a while. This is because histamine is released as foods begin to spoil.

You can use the Fig app to find food that works with each of the above diets and more. Simply scan an item at the grocery store, and Fig will tell you if the food likely fits the diet.

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