How to Live With Food Restrictions

By Sneha Dave

Tips for avoiding off-limits foods your body can't tolerate. Even when your taste buds crave them. 

GOING TO THE MOVIES IS excruciating – not a typical statement for a teenager to make. I can’t ever concentrate on the film, only the sights and sounds of others eating the favorite food I haven’t been able to consume in years: popcorn.

Restricting or cutting out certain foods can be extremely difficult for those of us whose bodies can’t tolerate them. Diagnosed with debilitating ulcerative colitis at age 6, I have learned to navigate a world of dietary minefields. But armed with these strategies, I have learned to combat cravings for things that could wreak havoc in my body.

If you or someone you know is struggling to avoid off-limits foods, here’s what works for me:

1. Find alternatives. After a grueling two weeks in the hospital, a nutritionist visited me at age 12 for a serious talk about my new dietary restrictions. Corn – in any shape or form –was out of the picture, as were many mouthwatering foods such as tacos, pizza and ice cream. The worst part? After reading nutrition labels, nearly everything on grocery store shelves seemed to have the very ingredients I couldn’t touch. So instead of eating those cheese puffs I loved (which had cornmeal) we searched around for a good replacement. Rice puffs, it turns out, taste very similar. It helps a lot to make small substitutions that still keep things “normal.”

2. Visit a health nutrition store. Not everything I used to eat can be replaced with a direct alternative. That’s why I’ve found it helpful to pick out foods I like that don’t cause issues and aren’t substitutions for something else. Many health food stores seem to cater to people like me who must avoid certain foods for health reasons, and tend to sell products with clearly labeled ingredients. It helps to be able to quickly rule out a food before falling in love with it.  

3. If you are going to a restaurant or a party, know your limits. I remember going to several parties and having to practically bite my tongue to avoid foods that looked so good but I knew would cause trouble. I still wanted to be social, and didn’t want to skip events just because of my limited diet. So instead, I found it helpful to eat before the events, which would lessen my cravings for foods my body would sorely regret. I did eat at the events, but picked things that were safe and in bite-size portions.  

4. Learn and understand your body. At times, I wanted so badly to stuff myself with all the popcorn and Mexican food my body could take. Even at a young age, I was forced to understand my body and learn the severe consequences certain foods could have on me. Food restrictions are a lifelong reality for me that change every so often. I know this and have suffered before from ignoring this reality. Today, at age 17, I know it’s important to trust yourself to make the right decisions no matter what situation you’re in, but to identify and avoid temptation triggers.

5. Know you’re not the only one. Being mentally strong is one of the toughest parts of living with food restrictions, especially for people with a long list of banned foods. But there are others out there who are facing the same challenges as you. Being able to connect and network with others is a huge step to being able to adapt successfully to a restricted diet.

6. See a professional. When my diet was at its most restrictive, it was difficult for me to even find online resources with useful guidance. Consulting with a dietitian or nutritionist who could help me plan meals for the week made all the difference, so that my parents and I didn’t have to spend all our time checking products for offending ingredients. The professional also made sure I was getting all the daily nutrients that I needed, which can be very tricky on a restrictive diet.

7. Stay away from dangerous foods. My family was extremely gracious in supporting me through all of my dietary adventures. They basically did the diet with me. This made it easy: “Red-alert” foods were not in my environment and thus cravings became significantly less. If your family or housemates are understandably unwilling to live without their favorite foods, then at least ask them to please keep them out of your sight.

Although food restrictions may be horrific to deal with, they certainly build psychological courage. Throughout my experience with many diets and food restrictions, I have found that with experience, conquering food cravings becomes easier. Over time, the foods that cause you trouble may change as well, so it’s worthwhile to revisit them periodically. You might once again be able to eat that beloved meal. 

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