We talk about food sensitivities way too much. I say this as the owner of one. Which one? Who the hell cares? Avoiding whatever it is has become second nature, as much of an impediment to my daily life as avoiding physical contact with my airplane tray table or an ascending flock of recently fed pigeons. Under no circumstance do I want to turn any conversation to why I’ve cooked this instead of that, why I order this without that, which doctor did or didn’t say this about that or which scientific studies indicate or don’t indicate what about whatever. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares that I don’t feel so great when I eat whatever it is that bugs me — the entire business is put to rest by abstaining. It is, categorically, a nonissue.
Unfortunately, not everyone is so discreet, routinely spoiling otherwise pleasant dinner conversations with gastrointestinal details that really should remain private.
Let’s be clear: There is a giant, palpable difference between a legitimate food allergy and a sensitivity (also known as an intolerance). A severe allergy has consistent symptoms brought on by a known allergen and involves EpiPens and emergency room visits. We’re talking anaphylaxis versus varying degrees of discomfort over time. Thanks to everyone not shutting the eff up about their varying degrees of discomfort, as though their input were helping, people with legitimate food allergies are often treated like just another joiner on some diet-craze bandwagon. It’s seen everywhere food is served: restaurants, schools, hospitals, airlines, even in the military.
A veritable epidemic clogging up the works of news outlets, this increasingly obligatory yet nonsensical discussion is entirely preventable, and can be conditioned out of existence with one simple phrase: “I don’t feel so great when I eat it.”
“I don’t feel so great when I eat it” doesn’t invite the “Ugh, you’re one of those fake corn allergy people” reaction, nor does it require any follow-up, real or perceived shift in power dynamic or general Debbie Downer–ness. Those who would feel compelled to inquire further in a dining situation to the tune of “What happens when you eat dairy?” deserve no further response than a lighthearted “Uhh…let’s talk about [now you get to choose a new topic — pick something more interesting than ‘ruinous diarrhea’!] instead.”
“I don’t feel so great when I eat it” garners nothing more than an unspoken “Fair enough, you know you best” or perhaps even a nod of solidarity. It nips in the bud any mention of “ruined” children’s birthday parties, fad weight-loss diets, health trends with no basis in medical science and other equally pointless topics of conversation. Best of all, it keeps your sensitivity just that: yours, with your (uninteresting) story behind its discovery and treatment — though The Atlantic’s reader-sourced series “Why Go Gluten-Free” does have a few doozies. Relatively speaking, that is.
The spectrum of symptoms truly runs the gamut nowadays. Even allergists, gastroenterologists and endocrinologists have trouble nailing down what’s troubling your system based on which symptoms present at any given time after ingestion. It could take 30 seconds, 15 minutes or two days. It could cause muscle aches, itchy hives, unexplained anxiety, general malaise or the aforementioned forceful evacuation. And if your adverse reaction to soy or eggs doesn’t result in the need for medical intervention, it can be easily and painlessly put to rest with “I don’t feel so great when I eat it.”
Now, let’s quickly address pickiness masquerading as an allergy or sensitivity. By all means inform a server of an allergy or even a sensitivity, as chefs will go out of their way to take health concerns seriously (lest they end up incarcerated), but avoid interchanging that with “preference.” Nobody is legitimately allergic to cucumbers, so if you feign an allergy instead of simply requesting no cucumbers on your sandwich, you’re perpetuating a stigma that affects others negatively and sells them short in addition to sounding dumb and patronizing the chef and server. Again, “I don’t do well with cucumbers” or simply “No cucumbers, please” is more than enough for a server to get the message — no further details required. If the cucumbers still arrive, whether on the side or even on top, you can remove them. Any residual (delicious) cucumber flavor is surely something you can push past.
Utilize this easy phrase as shortcut to a topic worth discussing, and enjoy the heck out of that cheeseless burger, you responsible and interesting digestive system–haver and conversationalist.