Have you experienced social isolation since you’ve discovered you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity? If so, you’re not alone. It’s a topic that doesn’t seem to be highlighted when people talk about celiac disease.
I know for myself, the barest contact with gluten causes a huge reaction and lots of subsequent drama, so I have to strictly control what I touch and eat.
SOCIAL ISOLATION AND CELIAC DISEASE
Celiac disease can be incredibly socially challenging. It’s been challenging just between me and my husband with how we choose to be social when we go out.
If you consider people with other food allergies or health issues like diabetes, most of them don’t have to be so strict all the time about every little thing. So it can be difficult for people to understand or relate to a celiac’s need to avoid even very minor cross contamination.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for friends and family to have the perspective that celiacs are overreacting or being unnecessarily dramatic.
Many people believe that just a little gluten isn’t going to hurt you and that any social isolation you experience is self imposed.
The solution that many celiacs employ is to just not be social when there’s food involved (which is almost always). So you stop going to social events and eventually stop getting invited since you never attend.
And the next thing you know, you’re experiencing social isolation and may not be sure how to get out of it.
Non-celiac folks don’t usually realize (because they haven’t had to think about it) that food is interwoven with almost everything like dating, birthday parties, office parties, getting a drink, getting a coffee, a night out on the town, etc.
And it can be exhausting to always be explaining that you have celiac disease which means x, y, and z.
And while you can overcome the social isolation, you do need to say goodby to spontaneity when it comes to eating. The good news is you can use that lack of spontaneity (the required planning) to create opportunities to be social!
Here are some ways to turn the need for planning and vigilance into an opportunity to mingle and have fun.
1. EAT BEFORE YOU GO OUT
This is my least favorite solution, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got. It sucks to eat alone before you go out and then sit there and watch other people eat delicious food you’ll never have again.
BUT I do it. I do it because I enjoy hanging out with my friends and doing fun things. And usually any evening out starts or ends with food.
When I go out for long periods of time, I make sure to take protein bars, nuts, or some gluten free snacks with me in case I get hungry. That way my my eating constraints don’t interfere with what I’ve planned.
2. TAKE YOUR OWN FOOD TO SOCIAL FUNCTIONS
For events like Thanksgiving, a potluck, or a large family Christmas dinner, it may be best to simply pack yourself a nice big dinner and dessert, and take it with you.
At events like these it’s meaningful to eat together, and really the only way to be safe is to pack your own food.
3. ASSOCIATE A SPECIFIC RESTAURANT WITH YOURSELF
See if you can find a place locally where you can eat safely. Then let people know you’re happy to eat out and be social, but it has to be at that one restaurant.
I did this quite successfully. There was one totally gluten free restaurant in my city (now there are actually two completely gluten free restaurants in my city, yay!).
My coworkers, friends, family, everyone know that if they want to be social with me over a meal, it has to be at that restaurant. Fortunately for me, that restaurant makes delicious food that’s reasonably priced.
But it has turned into a novelty of sorts. My friends look forward to that restaurant and equate it with me.
And of course I’m happy to bring business/customers to the one place (now two places) I can eat—I’m all about keeping those gluten free places in business!
4. HOST EVENTS
Another thing I’ve begun doing is hosting social events myself. You don’t necessarily have to do this at your home—you can do it at a park or community space. This can, however, be a little pricey if you provide all the food yourself.
So a great approach is to make it an educational game where you ask people to bring a purchased/packaged item (chips, cookies, buns, whatever) but it MUST be certified gluten free. No homemade foods allowed.
And then you can provide them some information on the criteria—what the different certifications are, what to look for, etc.
People generally like to contribute and when you give them very specific guidance on how to be successful. And they’ll take pride in bringing something you can safely eat.
It’s also helpful because it’s knowledge they’ll have for future social events that center around food. Perhaps next time you visit them they’ll have some gluten free snacks for you!
5. USE A NIMA SENSOR
The Nima gluten sensor is a portable gluten sensor that tests food for trace amounts of gluten. It’s the first technology of its kind. It’s a pricier solution, but sometimes it’s nice to eat at a new restaurant.
I’ve had my Nima gluten sensor for over a year now, and honestly, I think it’s an amazing tool. It’s really helpful if you want to try to eat out safely every once in a while.
Common sense and extreme caution should always be your primary means of self-protection, but it can be a very useful tool to keep yourself safe.