Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Defence of ...

all those who can't eat what 'everyone' does.

This post was prompted by an article by Nicola Conville in this morning's Sunday Times. In it model Annalise Braakensiek describes how she is plagued by food allergies which she can only control by carefully watching everything she puts in her mouth. As a result she says that she is often regarded as 'picky'.

She has my sympathy. In my family there are several food allergy sufferers and while most folk have got a handle on the idea that sugar is poison to diabetics (not true but at least the need for diabetics to follow a particular dietary regime is acknowledged and accepted) and that peanuts can be fatal to those who are allergic to them, pretty much every other food problem is regarded as the sufferer being 'picky'.

The problem is that the other allergies, sensitivities and illnesses which involve food are not well publicised. Sharing food is an intrinsic part of human culture and society to the point that refusing to share - even on medical grounds - is often seen as an insult.

Annalise Braakensiek is quoted as saying that when she is forced to have a meal out she can often find nothing on the menu that she can eat. This has been our experience too. For example at a recent wedding there was literally nothing on the menu that one family member could eat except for a bread roll. The same thing happened at a Christmas potluck gathering. It's bad enough at weddings, birthdays and other parties but dinner parties are a nightmare. Plane journeys are just as bad though, to be fair, they do cater for vegetarians which is more than many others do. (By the way catering for vegetarians is not saying they can just have the vegetable side dishes like everyone else.) Most infuriating of all though is when having sat watching everyone else eating at a restaurant while we can't eat more than bread or rice we are expected to pay an equal amount of the bill - because we are being 'picky'.

There are many folk out there suffering like this - and make no mistake it is suffering - and there is little or no attempt to understand by the majority of the community. As a family we have reached the point that we now have a meal before we go anywhere that we are expected to eat because we know the likelihood is at least some of us will go hungry.

It's weird isn't it. The ones whose health is endangered are regarded as the problem. Try looking at it this way. Someone with diverticular disease risks serious (even life threatening) consequences if they eat certain popular foods. Someone with a shellfish allergy could die if they have even a tiny amount. Is this being 'picky'. The consequences for people with gluten intolerance, hypoglycaemia and a number of other illnesses and allergies may not be fatal but do you really want people to suffer to make you feel better by eating food you have offered that will harm them?

Another aspect of being unable to share food is that sufferers tend to become socially isolated. In a world where sharing food and eating together is a social glue and not joining in is seen as snobbishness or being picky, at a certain point it becomes easier to just withdraw. Humans are social creatures but very few people want to keep battling community indifference all the time particularly when you are being ground down by disapproval.

Can I make a suggestion? Next time someone irritates you by refusing a food don't immediately pigeon hole them into 'picky'. Chances are they have a very valid reason.

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