Every year, around January 1st, my dear patients call my office and apologize. They timidly, sheepishly confess that they’ve “cheated” or “fallen off the bandwagon”, in terms of following their food plans and dietary restrictions. They feel awful and they want to know what they can do to fix it.
Almost all of my patients have experienced this. In truth, I have, too.
Because the holidays are often a time of family, food, changes in daily routine, and often, travel, this can add more stress. It can be even more difficult if you’re following a therapeutic food plan. Remembering which foods you can have and which ones you need to avoid can present an extra challenge. Making sure you’re following your food plan as prescribed can be harder than usual. Dietary restrictions can present challenges.
It’s Not Just You!
Don’t worry; you’re not alone! The first year of having to follow, for example, a gluten-free diet can be the most challenging. The learning curve is the steepest during the early stages, as you’re trying to learn new terms, navigate internet search results, and work with your Functional Medicine doctor to overcome “speed bumps”. When you’re first starting out in the world of dietary restrictions, everything is new, and new usually means unknown; unknowns are sometimes a little scary.
You’re also not alone if you “fall off that bandwagon”! Even if you’ve been at this a while and you’ve learned your way around food ingredient labels, or you’ve found your favorite dishes at accommodating restaurants the rest of the year, the holidays might present a speedbump in your “mojo”.
Personally, I’ve been following a restricted therapeutic food plan (of various types) for about eight years. The first few months were pretty difficult, and the holidays were especially so. I made a lot of mistakes. Even now, each year, I face challenges with staying “on course” and maintaining my “dietary integrity” through the holidays. The holidays can present a challenge to anyone on a special food plan, no matter how experienced they might be.
This often means that the months of January and February are spent healing and “cleaning up” the damage done during exposures to problematic foods during the holidays.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and it doesn’t mean that the holidays never get any easier! It’s just that you might feel the Restriction aspect a bit more strongly during this time.
In this article, I’m going to share with you three of my go-to strategies for surviving the holidays with food restrictions. I recommend starting to think about these now, and taking proactive steps in advance. After all, prevention is better than any cure!
Tip 1 – Talk About Your Dietary Restrictions, on a “Need To Know” Basis:
If you will be traveling to someone else’s house for a holiday gathering, there are a couple of steps you can take. One is to contact the host or hostess personally, ideally a few weeks in advance, and bring up the subject of your food restriction. It’s best to broach the topic gently, while making sure to be straightforward and clear at the same time.
An example might be: “Hi Sally, it’s Dawn. Do you have a few minutes? Great! I need to let you know about something I’m dealing with right now. I’m following a [gluten-free, etc] diet for the time being, and I’ve been told not to ‘cheat’, because it could really mess up my body and my healing progress. I’m realizing that my body’s reactions to [gluten, etc] are really bad. Do you have an idea yet what you might be planning for the menu? And is there anything I can bring?”
This is an excellent way to open the conversation. It’s courteous, considerate, unassuming, and simple. You’re opening a two-way dialogue by asking “open” questions. You’re describing your needs in a neutral way that neither criticizes yourself nor feels like a “preachy” “steamroller” onto someone else.
Beware Dietary Restriction Information Overload…
It’s important to remember that not everyone will know what gluten is (or casein, or any other food you’re having to avoid), nor will they be familiar with its aliases or derivatives. They’re not usually going to be the ingredient label detectives that you’ve learned to be. Typically, they haven’t gone through your learning curve with you.
Thus, your information and your needs may be very new to them. This is why it’s important to stick to the basics, especially at first, and try to avoid jargon. For example, explain where gluten is found; “anything with flour, and soy sauces or marinades”, etc is a good place to start.
Timing Is Important.
Ideally, you’ll want to open this conversation at least a week or two in advance, if not sooner. It’s not something I recommend “springing” on someone, if it can be avoided.
Tip 2 – Bring Food That’s Appropriate For Your Dietary Restrictions.
When my patients and I talk about this (and I have these conversations every year, especially with new patients), I recommend bringing at least two food items, if possible: something with protein and a dessert. This ensures that you’ve got a protein source (for energy), and that you can also partake in dessert. This way, you’ve got something for each “course” – dinner and dessert. Alternatively, you can bring a “finger food”, a side-dish, and/or some other snack. These can be store-bought or homemade, simple or elaborate.
Above all, remember: You don’t have to be Martha Stewart!
There are several “versions” of this tip. One is to bring something that everyone can share, while the other is to keep some personal food-restriction-friendly “munchies” to yourself, such as in your pocket. There is nothing wrong with either of these approaches; it’s all about personal preference. Do you think your family would be open to your “new, different” foods, or are they dead-set on having their traditional yearly menu, without room for deviation? Are they open-minded, or not? Are you more introverted or less experienced with your food plan, or are you more comfortable with saying, “hey! Check out this new food I found/made!”
Each person’s situation will be different. There is no shame in simply keeping a few protein bars in your pocket and grabbing one to eat on the down-low if you feel hungry.
Tip 3 – Gently Stick To Your Guns! Follow Your Dietary Restrictions, Even When You’re Tempted To Stray.
It’s perfectly acceptable–and okay–to Just Say No Thank-You. It’s possible that some people at the holiday gathering might not be very understanding. They don’t know what it’s like. Chances are, they may have bad reactions to foods themselves without even knowing it.
However, it’s important to walk the fine line. It’s not a good idea to come across as overly preachy to others, but it’s equally important not to allow the skepticism or criticism of others to get to you. After all, you live in your body; they don’t. It’s you who would feel the consequences for the next few days or weeks after “cheating”, not them. They don’t have to walk in your shoes.
Thus, they don’t really have a say over what you ultimately decide to put into your body and what you don’t.
There several potential obstacles in trying to avoid foods you can no longer eat.
It can be really tough, even a little heartbreaking, to have to turn down Grandma’s prized apple pie or chocolate fudge brownies. She may be taken aback, because “you have always loved them before!”.
In some cultures, to decline to indulge in a food can be taken very personally, almost akin to personal rejection. In other cultures or families, particularly those in which emotional expression of love and affection doesn’t come easy, the act of preparing food for family members is symbolic of love. These family members may perceive your polite “no, thank you” as a rejection of their showing of love.
And lastly, food, emotion, and memory are closely connected. Grandma’s apple pie or Aunt Karen’s fudge brownies smell wonderful, and may even trigger fond memories of nostalgia, joy, and family closeness. It’s tough when the smell of your former favorite foods and desserts fill the home with familiar aromas, and yet, you know that you can’t partake.
Dietary restrictions can feel…well, restricting. Unfortunately, there’s no way around that situation, at least not without making some changes. These require preparation, but they’re possible.
You can work around dietary restrictions. Here are some ideas!
For example, perhaps Aunt Karen might consider creating a gluten-free version of her chocolate fudge brownies, or maybe you can help Grandma figure out how to tweak that apple pie recipe to be gluten-free and dairy-free by using almond flour and coconut milk instead. (Learning new things is especially beneficial for elderly people, by building new connections in the brain, which staves off dementia!) There are excellent resources for recipe ingredient substitutions and other recipe ideas.
Just remember: other folks don’t have to live with the joint pain, migraines, bloating, depression, irritability, brain fog, or fatigue that can occur from getting exposed to a problematic food. They don’t have to deal with constipation, heart palpitations, or the sudden skin rash breakout. They can’t appreciate how much better you feel when you avoid your “trigger foods”. That one bite of soy-sauce-marinated steak or flour-based turkey stuffing just isn’t worth it.
And then, you can totally pat yourself on the back in January and February, knowing that by sticking to your food plan, you didn’t set yourself back several months and several hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to put out the fires in your body!
You can keep moving forward. Let’s make sure your holidays are a time that you can enjoy–at the gatherings themselves, and in the days and weeks afterward!
Dr. Lara Sweeney, DC, IFMCP, takes a whole-person approach to healing, of which a therapeutic food plan is one of several very important tools.
Working With Dr. Sweeney, You’ll Learn:
- Which foods you need to avoid, and which foods you may enjoy freely!
- Some of the tastiest food substitutions (i.e., “new favorite foods”) available, and where to get them.
- How to repair the internal body damage caused by food reactions.
- How to recover from food reactions much more quickly!
- Full, comprehensive lists of food ingredient substitutions that can be used in recipes.
- One-to-one coaching through mind-body-food concerns and strategies for food discussions with individual family members.
- When it’s safe to ease dietary restrictions and start considering “adding foods back in”.
- You’ll also have access to a longtime collection of Dr. S’s favorite recipes, with appetizers, side-dishes, desserts, main courses, and finger-foods!
Wishing Everyone a Very Happy Holiday Season!!
In Healing and Light,
~Dr. L. Sweeney, DC, IFMCP