6 Tips For Navigating Social Settings and Food With Gut Health Issues
If you have ulcerative colitis or any other form of gut health issues (food allergies and intolerances, IBS, other forms of IBD, etc…) you feel me when I say social settings can get, well, downright awkward. You want to go the birthday dinner, but can’t eat anything on the menu (or are a little too scared too, for fear of what it might do to your stomach). You want to go on the first date, but you don’t want to explain to them why you have to pick a different restaurant or can’t get ice cream or would rather not just ‘grab a drink.’ You want to go on the weekend camping trip, but don’t want to be “that girl” (or guy!!) with their own cooler and Tupperware meals (hi that’s me EVERY time).
If you’re anything like me, you just want to feel normal once in awhile. You want to be able to do the fun things everyone else does without overthinking and planning ahead. But guess what? The first step to overcoming gut-induced social anxiety (trust me, it’s a thing) is to stop wishing you didn’t have to plan ahead, overthink or re-check the menu 100 times and start accepting and embracing that you do.
Because guess what? You CAN do all of those fun, social things. You CAN go to the birthday dinner and simply eat beforehand. You CAN take control of the situation and explain (briefly) why you need to suggest a different date idea. You CAN go on the weekend trip and bring all the Tupperware you want without feeling ashamed or out-of-place.
You can do anything you want, and it comes down to two things: confidence and communication.
Having ulcerative colitis and other gut-health issues isn’t easy, fun or glamorous, but it’s also not something to hide or be ashamed of. So often people who reach out to be tell me they don’t really talk about their UC and how grateful they are that I speak out about it and make it seem more “normal.” And I’m so, so happy I can be a boost of confidence for others with UC, but I want everyone with UC, or other chronic illnesses, to feel that they too have the power to speak up.
So next time you’re faced with social anxiety due to your gut health, keep these tips in mind:
Explain to your friends and family you have dietary needs – being open with the people you’re going to be eating out with makes everything a lot easier. Explaining early on, even before any sort of food plans are made, gives them a heads up and you’ll start feeling more comfortable when the time comes to go out to a birthday dinner or girl's day brunch. I was always VERY transparent with my friends and roommates in college so it never came as a shock to them when I simply ate dinner before, but still wanted to go to dinner to spend time with them, or when I pulled out my own Tupperware. Also, communicating openly will help them understand more about your situation which will make you and them more comfortable.
Be confident – don’t hide your gut health issues! Like I said before, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. When someone asks you why you have your own snacks or why you aren’t eating at the restaurant, just be confident and honest. It’s not embarrassing, and it doesn’t make you weird or weak. The more confident YOU act, the less people will question you and your actions. Realize that you’re doing something for your health and that’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s something to be PROUD of! If people start questions you too much and you do start feeling really awkward (no one wants the entire dinner table to only be focused on you and your stomach), just try to change the subject politely (and realize people are simply curious!).
Be your biggest advocate – whenever I do go out to eat at restaurants or order a smoothie at a café I always double and even triple check that they’ve noted my food intolerances and made the changes I asked for. I never feel awkward or rude when asking for a completely switched around meal if it’s the only thing that won’t make me sick. And you know what? I’ve never been to a restaurant where they were rude about it! Most restaurants are super kind and reassuring once you let them know about food intolerances. Don’t be afraid to speak up either if they make a mistake. Plenty of times I’ve gotten my meal and they’ve forgotten to hold the dairy. I’m always kind about it but simply tell them I can’t eat it and they always feel badly. It’s YOUR stomach and health, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
Realize your health is worth every ounce of awkwardness, questioning and stares – would you rather get a few silly questions and a few side-eye glances or a stomachache that makes you want to curl up in a ball (or extreme nausea, fatigue, etc.)??? Questions and stares seem like a pretty good option now don’t they. ;) This goes back to confidence – the more confident you act, the less awkward stares and questions become! And if you act like it’s no big deal, those questions and stares soon will go away. Honestly my eating habits became a kind of joke with all of my friends. It was always just like “lol typical nat” and we moved on.
Practice makes perfect – keep communicating, asking for substitutes at restaurants, explaining to friends, etc. It’s like a muscle – the more you use your voice to explain and advocate for yourself, the easier it becomes! The first few times pulling out your own meals, lugging your own cooler on a weekend trip or explaining to friends why you aren’t eating at their birthday dinner might be super awkward and that’s okay! But the more you do it the more like second nature it will become.
Always be prepared no matter what – even when I DO think I can eat something at an event, restaurant, get-together, etc. I always still have back up snacks. Because we all know there’s nothing worse than showing up unable to eat anything and not having snacks on hand. I typically always bring some sort of bar, jerky or veggies in my purse everywhere I go. I even packed a baggie with a homemade turkey burger for my college’s Spring concert in May because I wasn’t sure I could eat at the food trucks LOL the security guards checking my purse definitely gave me a weird look.
With these tips in hand (and snacks in your purse) I promise you you’ll be able to navigate any social situation even if you’re dealing with gut health issues like me. Just remember – COMMUNICATION and CONFIDENCE. You’ve got this.