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Healthy holidays: Food allergies and gifts of food

Food allergies or restrictions can complicate travel or visits to friends and family. Two Stanford experts share advice here.

Eating out, staying with guests and knowing what to do when offered a gift of food can require some finesse when you have a special diet or food allergies. It can be easy to feel self conscious about your diet and to fall into the trap of thinking you're "the only one" with dietary restrictions.

In reality, most people have some sort of dietary restriction and few of us can (or want to) consume all of the popcorn, candies, beef logs, and cheese and crackers we're gifted over the holidays.

Talking about our nutrition choices, though it may be tough at first, can actually be a positive thing, explains nutrition expert Christopher Gardner, PhD, and doctor-chef Michelle Hauser, MD. Here are their tips on ways to do it.

What advice do you have for people with dietary restrictions or food sensitivities about attending parties where they may not have access to food they can/should eat?

Hauser: As someone with a long-standing dairy allergy and history of being a pastry chef and baker for those with food allergies and intolerances, this is a topic that hits close to home. I have generally found hosts, colleagues and family to respond well when I mention my food allergy and explain that I don’t expect them to go out of their way to prepare anything special for me but ask if they can let me know which items contain the ingredient(s) that I want to avoid or save packaging and ingredient lists for me to look at to decide for myself.

Of course, it’s safer — and generally more appreciated — to offer to help prepare the meal and/or bring one or more items to share that are safe to eat. This takes pressure off the host and can help ease anxieties around whether or not an item really is free of items that you need to avoid. It’s also good to learn a bit about foods that tend to be commonly available at certain events and identify those that tend to be safe. If all else fails, make sure to eat a small meal before a party or bring a snack or two with you so that you don’t go hungry.

Gardner: Given that awareness of dietary restrictions and food sensitivities is growing, it should be getting easier to simply tell your host or other guests that there are certain items being served that you will need to skip. You may have to double-up on the serving of an item that you can eat, assuming that the party offers enough variety to do this.

It would certainly be unreasonable to think that a host should be prepared for every possible restriction or sensitivity, and so the most obvious solution here is to bring something with you that you picked yourself in the event there aren’t enough options or quantities for you. While graciously bringing up the reason for taking this strategy with the host or a guest, if providing a reason is warranted, you might even find yourself with the primer for an engaging conversation with someone new, or with a shared interest to discuss with an old friend or family member.

How do you manage gifts of sweets, alcohol and other unhealthy foods?

Gardner: Start by accepting all gifts graciously. Then, distinguish between those you want and those that you don’t want. Later you can re-gift, if appropriate, and when not appropriate, throw it away (you can do that!).

Hauser: Accept them gratefully — after all, it’s the thought that counts! Then, triage according to those things that you really like versus those that are just OK. Get rid of the “just OK” items (by giving away, sharing or discarding) and come up with a plan to enjoy the items that you really like — this can still include sharing to cut down on the portion that you eat. Alternatively, some items can be frozen in reasonable portions and enjoyed later, after the holidays.

To avoid getting into a sticky situation, you may want to at least take a small taste of the item(s) that you plan to get rid of so that if someone asks about your enjoyment of the treat that they gave you, you can answer honestly. Of course, if you know that you are someone without the ability to moderate intake of certain unhealthy items that you’re trying to avoid, then by all means dispose of them at your earliest convenience in a way that won’t offend the gift giver.

This is the second piece in a three-part series on healthy eating over the holidays.

Previously: Healthy holidays: Strategies to help enjoy celebratory foods“I wasn’t afraid to fail at my dream”: A physician-chef discusses her unusual career and Stanford nutritionist offers tips for eating healthy during the holidays
Photo by NordWood Themes

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