“Oh, you don't eat wheat? Are you a coeliac?”
I may be new to the food intolerance game, but I know a loaded question when I see one. If I lie and say yes, and I’ll be peppered with questions intended to trick me into revealing my disingenuity. Tell the truth and say no, and there’s no point in elaborating my condition, because the silent judgment has fallen regardless of whatever explanation I do provide. To the self-proclaimed prosecutor, judge and juror, I am just another pretentious white girl heralding a crash diet beneath the barbarous appropriation of someone else’s illness.
Except there myriad food intolerances in the world beyond coeliac’s disease (an autoimmune disease that presents as an intolerance to gluten). And in their haste to judge those who make dinner parties inconvenient by bringing their own food, or politely request the kitchen at a restaurant not include one or two ingredients, people have started their own personal lynch mob. It’s the new fad to hate du jour: the food intolerant are now more loathed than veganism, Scientology, and Justin Bieber combined.
I’ve worked in hospitality for years, I know the routine well: sneer, roll eyes, bitch to the kitchen about the pickiness of some people. Create a false correlation between the increase in food intolerance identifiers compared to when we were (hardier) kids. Ignore the fact that people were still sick from eating foods they couldn’t digest back then, but they simply didn’t know why. Get huffy and judgmental that anyone would dare eat the food they like with alterations that will allow them to be consumed without a negative impact to their health. Remark that people who “fake” intolerances make life harder for the “real” sufferers despite the demand for such products increasing the accessibility of all alternate food products everywhere, which is a net win for everyone.
Oh yeah, but guess what? It’s also nobody's fucking business.
I have a food intolerance. I was diagnosed in early 2014 when someone who had known me for years on end insisted that it was not normal to feel nauseous, fatigued, bloated and sickly virtually every day. I had protested against it at the time, but later began to notice that nobody else in my life seemed to grit their teeth against pain and exhaustion just to get through the day like I did. I reluctantly came to terms with the possibility of actually being afflicted by some chronic mystery illness.
The next few months weren’t fun. I was subjected to ultrasounds, blood tests, gastroscopies, and referred left and right for a handful of symptoms that were too unpredictable for me to map back to any one source. Finally, my doctor said: “I'm pretty sure it will yield nothing, but we should try hydrogen breath testing before opting for the next step considering that will involve invasive exploratory surgery”
Boom. Two weeks, three tests, and a strictly limited control diet later, I was diagnosed as FODMAPS intolerant with the addendum that lactose products were uncharacteristically okay for me, despite most people in my position being additionally lactose intolerant.
Being FODMAPS intolerant is, simply put, awful. Being forced to farewell not just wheat, but garlic, onion, almost all fruits, beans, legumes and a handful of vegetables was devastating at the time of diet alteration. The list of things I can’t eat is so expansive, I have to keep an app on my phone that updates as new scientific research classifies further additions as tolerable or otherwise. I’m not ashamed to admit that in those early days, I cried in restaurants more than I’d like. Hard to be a food blogger when you can barely eat anything on the menu.
Adhering to dietary restrictions is a daily battle of wills. To capitulate is to endanger both my short-term and long-term health, running the risk of depression, fibromyalgia, fatigue, chronic headaches, autoimmune conditions and even cancer in later life.
In the last year, I have tried to navigate this minefield as best I can. Research indicates that the body of a person with FODMAPS intolerance can tolerate small amounts of these foods without gastric distress, but will suffer punishing symptoms if this (low) quota is exceeded. As such, I am acutely aware that my daily mental mapping of meals will likely sound inconsistent to others… perhaps even suspicious. As if I have fabricated "the rules" so as to conveniently be permitted the food that I want when I want it.
And it’s exhausting. I am habitually forced to trounce out the minutiae of my condition for people who make their enquiries as part of a “gotcha” ruse, rather than from a place of genuine concern. I have made an art-form of flippantly attributing my condition to karma, following my hospitality days of scepticism regarding some guest’s orders. Maybe that joke rings true.
What I find the most frustrating, however, is my own submissiveness about my intolerances. It is not fun to routinely fall into pathetically evasive “not like the others” language when identifying my dietary needs, a refrain so underscored by the subtext of “please accept me”. Even to this day, I often am plagued by guilt when listing everything I can’t eat. Instead, I tend to order food with only minor variations that will ultimately do little to allay the severity of my inevitable symptoms when they strike. Essentially, I compromise my health so as to avoid the sneers from waiters or dining companions who think they know more about my body’s capacity to process food than I do.
I shouldn't have to throw myself at the mercy of a peoples' court on the rare occasion that I must posit a question or two about the ingredients in a meal when it’s necessary for my health. But for some reason I am consistently pressured to feel apologetic for saying no to foods that I wish I could eat, which is already depressing enough. I despise being side-eyed as if a liar, a pedant or both. And yet even if this condemnation was reflective of my character, it’s hard to comprehend why my choices about what I put into my body seems to be so upsetting to other people.
So to the food intolerance-policing circlejerk: I hope this resolves any and all of the smug interrogations to which you have subjected me. Because I am no longer willing to compromise my health to dodge your criticisms… and I am not sorry.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.