There are many diets and lifestyles to choose from when it comes to food choices. Health concerns, ethical beliefs, and environmental considerations influence each individual. When you host a meal or social gathering, it can seem daunting to consider all the possible scenarios. At first glance, you may understand the importance of a guest avoiding a life-threatening allergen but don’t feel the need to cater to someone’s food choices if they are different than yours. Many households and hosts believe that “you’ll eat what I put on the table. I’m not preparing something else.”

Yet, sharing a meal with others embodies the true essence of building and nurturing relationships, acceptance, and kindness. It is not merely about the food but the connections we forge, the understanding we cultivate, and the warmth we extend to one another. Through this communal act, we create bonds, foster a sense of belonging, and demonstrate compassion, enriching our lives and the lives of those we dine with.

As someone who has struggled with food sensitivities and allergies, I’ve seen and heard my share of food bullying. And I’m no stranger to people pleasing. I’ve been known to eat something that doesn’t agree with me just to keep the peace, not to rock the boat, or be considered difficult. But I’ve learned that the price I must pay to please someone else and go against what I know to be true for myself does not serve anyone. Disappointing myself and jeopardizing my health, sometimes at the risk of severe pain or a trip to the ER, always hurts worse than the discomfort of telling someone no or “I can’t eat that.”

Let’s explore some common allergies, sensitivities, and food choices. I encourage you to live in your curiosity, offering grace and compassion when you encounter someone who follows a different eating plan, especially when they show up at your table. If we can show kindness around the dinner table, perhaps we can also show kindness in other areas of life, even when we don’t understand or share the same beliefs.

Understanding Food Allergies vs Sensitivities

Food allergies involve an immune system response to certain foods. Common allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. When someone with a food allergy consumes the allergen, they may experience symptoms ranging from mild (hives, itching) to severe (anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening).

Unlike allergies, food sensitivities (intolerances) typically do not involve the immune system. Instead, they may result from difficulties in digesting certain foods. Lactose intolerance, for instance, is due to the body’s inability to break down lactose, the sugar in milk. Symptoms of food sensitivities can include digestive distress, headaches, or fatigue.

After years of digestive distress, my acupuncturist suggested an elimination diet. We looked at dairy and gluten. Removing gluten from my diet had the most significant impact on how I felt. It helped me to avoid the pain and constipation I had suffered from for years.

When I developed a case of chronic idiopathic hives in 2015, I went to doctors seeking an explanation and solution. They had none. I was tested for food and environmental allergies and all came back negative. Yet, I still had hives. Daily. For six years.

I eventually took a food sensitivity test through Everylwell and discovered a sensitivity to whey protein and eggs (two things I ate daily for years). Around that time I also found that when we cooked with MCT oil, my throat got scratchy and began to close up. I had to leave the room and sometimes the house and get outside to breathe fresh air.

MCT oil is a fat called medium-chain triglycerides derived from coconut and palm oils. It is a popular oil that claims to boost energy, support weight loss, and enhance brain function.

All wonderful results unless of course, you’re allergic to coconut!

As I removed these three things from my diet, the hives disappeared. Immediately.

Food Choices Based on Health

For many, myself included, dietary choices are driven by the need to manage health conditions. People with celiac disease, for example, must follow a strict gluten-free diet to avoid damage to their intestines. Similarly, those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) might adhere to a low-FODMAP diet to reduce symptoms.

Others choose specific diets to enhance their overall well-being. Plant-based diets, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, are often adopted for their potential to lower the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Likewise, some might choose diets low in processed foods and high in nutrients to support long-term health and vitality.

Ethical and Environmental Reasons for Food Choices

Ethical considerations play a significant role in many people’s food choices. Vegans and vegetarians often choose to exclude animal products from their diets to oppose animal cruelty and exploitation.

The environmental footprint of our food is another compelling reason for dietary choices. Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and water use. As a result, individuals concerned about climate change and environmental sustainability might adopt plant-based diets to reduce their ecological impact or choose to eat only local foods to avoid the gas emissions from transporting food.

Personal Preferences and Cultural Influences

Personal preferences and cultural backgrounds also significantly influence dietary choices. Some people might avoid certain foods simply because they don’t like the taste, texture, or how it makes them feel. Cultural and familial traditions can shape our food choices from an early age, instilling preferences and dietary habits that carry into adulthood.

In our fast-paced world, convenience often dictates our food choices. Busy schedules lead individuals to prefer quick, easy-to-prepare meals, which can sometimes conflict with other dietary goals. Balancing convenience with health and ethical considerations is a common challenge.

Making Informed Food Choices

Whatever the reason behind our dietary choices, making informed decisions is essential. Understanding the impact of our food on our health, the environment, and animal welfare can guide us toward more thoughtful and intentional eating habits. For those with food allergies or sensitivities, it’s crucial to read labels carefully and communicate clearly when dining out to ensure safety. That’s why my husband Jim and I are building a self-paced, online course on Understanding the Importance of Nutrition and Bioavailable Nutrients on Wellness (available June 2024). Then later this year we’re launching a membership where we can meet weekly online, to learn, support, encourage, and hold each other accountable for living our healthiest lifestyle, whatever that means to each member.

Host and Guest Responsibility Toward Food Choices

The reasons behind our food choices are as diverse as we are. Whether driven by health concerns, ethical beliefs, environmental sustainability, or personal preferences, each decision about what we eat reflects our unique values and needs. At the end of the day, does it matter if someone eats a certain way because of an allergy, sensitivity, or choice? Can’t we live in our curiosity and respect these choices? When we do, we create a more inclusive and compassionate food culture that accommodates everyone’s dietary requirements and preferences. When we do that, we give others one of the best gifts we can offer: the ability to be seen, respected, and valued.

And isn’t that the best gift of all?

Popular Diets and Lifestyles

  • Vegans: The vegan lifestyle excludes animal products from their diet and life. They do not eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or any food derived from animals which could include honey, gelatin, butter, mayonnaise, and any breads, cookies, crackers that include eggs, butter, etc. The true vegan also avoids clothing and products made from animals such as silk, wool, leather, and fur. They will not use cosmetics, personal hygiene, or cleaning products that contain animal ingredients or have been tested on animals. Vegans often choose this lifestyle for ethical and environmental reasons. Vegans rely on plant-based food and products. Their diet comprises fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Raw vegan: Vegans go one step further in following the above standards of a vegan diet, but also eat only unprocessed and uncooked foods. Cooking is typically limited to techniques like blending, dehydrating, and soaking.
  • Vegetarian: While vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry, they may consume animal products like dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt) and eggs. Vegetarians can be further broken into three groups:
    • Lacto-vegetarians: Avoid meat and eggs but will eat some dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese).
    • Ovo-vegetarians: Avoid meat and dairy but will eat eggs.
    • Lacto-ovo vegetarians: Avoid meat but will eat both dairy products and eggs.
  • Pescatarians: Pescatarians abstain from meat but will eat fish and seafood. Their diet leans toward more plant-based foods.
  • Flexitarian or semi-vegetarian: Individuals following a flexitarian lifestyle mainly eat a plant-based diet but occasionally consume meat or other animal products.
  • Whole-Food Plant-Based (WFPB): The WFPB lifestyle emphasizes whole, minimally processed plant foods, avoiding or minimizing refined or processed foods. The diet mainly consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
  • Ketogenic (keto) diet: The keto diet is about reducing carbs and increasing fats. People with a keto lifestyle eat a lot of meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts, and healthy fats but avoid foods high in carbs like bread, pasta, and sugar.
  • Paleo: The paleo diet is the diet of our ancient ancestors. It focuses on whole, unprocessed foods that could be hunted or gathered, such as meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. People following a paleo diet avoid processed foods, grains, legumes, and dairy.

In addition to these popular diets and lifestyles, you may have heard of the Mediterranean, 40/30/30, anti-inflammatory, low-carb, or slow-carb diets. You may know people who are counting Macro’s. One friend may follow Weight Watchers, while others adhere to Jenny Craig, Isagenix, Atkins, or Alien Diet. 🙂

Navigating Diverse Diets and Lifestyles When You Don’t Know Who’s Coming To Eat At Your Table

With so many diverse food choices and dietary lifestyles, it’s a wonder we host a dinner party or gathering involving food. On the other hand, if we have food sensitivities, allergies, or particular preferences, we may want to avoid eating out or with other people.

But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, complicated, or expensive. Here are a few tips for providing an inclusive meal when you don’t know who’s coming to dinner.

  1. Communicate. If you are the host, ask your guests ahead of time if they have any food sensitivities, allergies, or preferences. If you are the guest, have a conversation beforehand about your needs. As the host, you may easily be able to accommodate the particular request. As the guest, be willing to bring a dish that meets your needs and can be shared with others.
  2. Keep foods separate, and more buffet style. When making a salad for a group of people, I often provide a large bowl of lettuce, and put everything else on the side: the tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, nuts, seeds, fruit, croutons, and dressing. I let my guest choose and build their salad. The same could be done with kabobs. Instead of creating a kabob that alternates animal protein with vegetables, put all the chicken on one kabob, the steak on another, and the vegetables on the others. They all cook at different temperatures and speeds, so this will make it easier for the cook or grill master. And makes it simple for your guests to choose without risk of contamination.
  3. Speaking of contamination, some guests may have a gluten sensitivity while others may be diagnosed with celiac disease. They will want to avoid cross-contamination at all costs. Bread and pasta and anything containing wheat should be separated. Remember this applies to utensils and cutting boards as well. If you have someone in attendance at your meal who is celiac, ask what they need. They know how to keep themselves safe and pain-free. Sometimes, they may simply need to go first on the buffet line, before others inadvertently cross-contaminate dishes with serving utensils. In some extremes, they may simply choose to bring their food.
  4. Always be curious. The best thing you can offer is your curiosity. If you are the host, simply asking “I”m curious. Why do you choose to eat this way” will give you a better understanding of someone. As the guest, merely asking “What are the ingredients in that dish” or “Walk me through how this was made” can help you understand if something is safe for you or not.

Sharing a meal with others can be an excellent opportunity to learn and broaden our understanding of the multitude of differences there are these days when it comes to food and dietary lifestyles.

©2024 Lori Ann King

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