“All disease begins in the gut.” – Hippocrates

Friday, April 9, 2010

Social Eating: Can I Go Out to Eat?

Last night some coworkers invited me out for a social dinner, which is not a big deal for me now (it used to be), even though I cannot eat most things on a normal restaurant menu. Later, after I got home, my wife encouraged me to write about the softer side of living on the SCD. Details only get you so far, she reminded me. The thing that turns us from merely existing on the SCD, to purely thriving is feeling normal, included, accepted--i.e., not feeling weird, or singled (left) out in social situations (which almost always involve food). See, being able to enjoy food at social events has been one of the 3 keys to allowing me to happily stick to such a non-culturally normal diet. For reason's I can't quite explain, being able to eat at social gatherings has helped me to be able to feel like one of the group, and given me the freedom to un-occupy (is that a word?) myself with my condition and to LIVE in those moments, engage and have fun!

So how do we do that on the SCD?

I didn't-- for the first 3-4 months on the diet, and I was miserable. I'm writing this post so that you won't make that mistake. If the SCD can really help people with Crohn's and/or Colitis, but folks are too miserable to keep it up, then what? Back to medicine? That didn't work. Surgery? Not unless they tie me down. That's not to minimize the benefits of medicine or surgery to those it has helped. Colectomy has saved lives, but I'm not there yet, and I don't want you to be there either if you don't have to. So here's how you can avoid my mistakes in handling social eating. I'll give you what I do, and you can adapt it however you like.

1. Remember 3 essential principles:
a. Culinary fulfilment is your key to a sustainable and happy journey on the SCD. So make up your mind that cooking will be a normal part of life. Then enjoy it. Cook lots of yummy, exotic, flavorful food. It will open a new world to you. It has for me.
b. People are going to ask about your diet, and by association, your condition. So, come to peace with talking about both. Don't dump your problems; potlucks aren't group therapy sessions. But be able to talk about both freely. This may take some time and practice. I used my family and closest friends as guinea pigs.
c. You are not Colitis. You are not Crohn's. Your condition is just a small part of the grander you. It doesn't define you; It doesn't control you. I don't use the word disease. I think it invokes pity and implies a claustrophobic permanence to my condition that did nothing positive for my morale.

Now to the practical(s)...
I know that enjoying my food is essential to my overall happiness on the SCD, so when my coworkers told me they wanted to go out to eat, I prepared. Here are some options, things I like to do:

1. I let them know I'm on a special diet. I let them know right away. This allows me the freedom to do what I need to do and avoids the mystery about why I eat so differently. Most of my coworkers are too timid to ask why I eat this way (and that's fine with me, I'd often rather talk about things other than me), but for those who do, I've been pleasantly surprised at the connections I've made with them. For example, I told one of my colleagues about my diet (we were going for lunch), and she asked all about it. Turns out she loved the idea, and went about incorporating lots of the SCD principles into her daily diet! We bonded over it, and still discuss her culinary (SCD-like) explorations today.

2. If you've let key folks know you're on a special diet, you can help pick the place to go eat--some place with options for you (this will often take some research: a phone call to the restaurant, or browse menus beforehand). I've been surprised...The people who know about my diet will often speak up and say something like, "Where do you want to go?" Or "Do they have things here you can eat? If not we can go somewhere else?" It's nice, and I let them do it.

3. Bring backup food. When I just don't feel like doing the research, or calling the restaurant manager, I will bring food with me and bust it out in the restaurant. I've even read about people who have had the waiter warm their food for them in the microwave. I've never done that, but it's worth a try... Lots of places don't mind if you bring your own food, so long as they know why- so tell them up front. I'm in DC, so some of the restaurants here are snooty about bringing in food. If snooty happens to you, here's what I've done to handle it. I've talked to the waiter (don't go straight to the manager unless you have to) and told them that I have a life-long digestive disease (the only time I will use the word; sure it's milking it a little, but hey...), and that I am on a medical diet. I have to eat this way. Most of the time that works and all is well. If it doesn't work, consider reminding them that if you ate their food, you could get very very sick, and that your disease is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] (gives us unrestricted access to restrooms both private and public, etc.). If they want to violate that, then ok. I would leave. But I've never had to do that. Most people and restaurants are wonderful, and I've never heard of anyone having to bust out the ADA card.

4. Pre-eat. Yup, I said it. Pre-eating isn't just for first dates anymore. This is actually my favorite. Why? I get to eat what I want. I get to eat it hot, and I get to eat a lot of it. I'll pre-eat at home, or at work usually and then saunter over to the restaurant, cravings sated, and order a salad with vinegar and salt. It takes some pre planning, but this option keeps me the happiest, and no one has ever bothered to ask why I just order a salad for dinner. Problem solved.

5. Copious amounts of decadent desert. I eat desert after breakfast (a SCD friendly yogurt smoothie, or scones with honey butter or homemade peach marmalade). I eat desert after lunch (baked apples with cinnamon, or blueberry muffins with SCD friendly apple butter). I eat desert after dinner (peanut butter brownies, apple or peach pie). Decadent treats (along with a wide variety of tastes in my every day meals) keep my cravings away, and keeps me content on the diet. I indulge often. You should too, so long as your system will take it. All of my food suggestions come with that caveat: Follow the diet flawlessly, and don't eat it if it irritates your system.

So, whether you pre-eat, bring your own, or sift through menus for SCD friendly options, try not to deprive yourself of the social edification that comes with being able (and willing) to attend events centered around food. Will it still be hard sometimes? Sure. Sometimes I have to walk away for a minute during ice cream (especially if I finished my desert on the walk over to dinner), but hopefully these things above will help you thrive on the SCD.

I'll continue this thread in future posts with more details on: how I deal with family (explaining the diet, and letting them cook for you), potlucks, handling cravings (I craved cigarettes once--I don't smoke), dinner at a friend's house (explaining how to cook for you), and traveling on the SCD.

Onward to health.

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