Do your friends and family look at you sideways when you show up to functions with your own special plate? Do they raise their eyebrows when you mention the word “cross-contamination”? Do their eyes glaze over when you try to explain the health risks of genetically modified food? If so, you might be a special diet social outcast.
In the past decade or so, a growing awareness has developed about the way certain foods affect the body. It is estimated that 1 out of every 100 people is gluten intolerant. Millions of people cannot tolerate lactose products. Still others avoid genetically modified and processed food products in an effort to avoid serious disease.
Whether by necessity or by choice, being on a special diet can put you in that uncomfortable “different” category that some either can’t or won’t understand.
Different is Weird – Why You’re a Special Diet Social Outcast
As a woman with Asperger’s syndrome I can tell you that I have plenty of first-hand experience dealing with being a social outcast. Anything that is perceived as “different” is not acceptable by the large majority of society. And I, in my younger years, was the poster child for different. Once I was told by a naturopath that I had gluten intolerance, my black sheep status ramped up big time.
I remember going into restaurants a bit over ten years ago and having to ask questions about every little ingredient. Even the most patient-appearing of waiters couldn’t wait to get away from me. I even heard from a family member or two, “Can’t you try to eat a little bit of gluten”? This, of course, didn’t make sense because I had been eating it my entire life and was sick as a dog.
Different is different. Different is weird. Different is uncomfortable. People do not like anything that is different. Pure and simple. When you walk into someone else’s home with a bunch of questions, a bunch of suggestions, or, God forbid, your own special food, people panic. Suddenly, you stick out like a sore thumb and it’s embarrassing for not only you but everyone else around you.
I really believe in my heart that some of the reason people don’t take your special diet seriously is because they’re afraid. They would hate to be you. Hate to have to watch every morsel of food they put into their mouths or suffer the consequences. I had one former friend tell me he’d “kill himself” if he ever had to avoid all the foods I do. Any health problem that’s brought into the light of day forces others to take a long, hard look at their own mortality. People don’t want to do that on the most somber of occasions, let alone a party or a picnic.
People are also terrified that they’ll accidentally poison you. They’ll treat you differently or even avoid entirely you just to make sure they’re not directly responsible for killing you. People are afraid of you and your special diet. It’s not your fault but there it is.
Now if you’re someone who doesn’t have a food intolerance or allergy but avoids certain foods based on your beliefs or health concerns, you face a similar but different set of obstacles. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, Paleo or follow an organic, GMO-free diet, people aren’t afraid of you, they think you’re on your high horse. As soon as you open your mouth and start talking about the amazing health benefits of your diet, they think you’re looking down on them.
They won’t think you’re trying to help them. They’ll think you’re trying to make them look bad. Instead of fear, they’ll feel guilt. They know they shouldn’t be living off of diet soda and snack chips. They know, deep down, it’s terrible for them but they don’t want to be reminded. Most people who eat that kind of diet prefer to keep their heads buried in the sand. The idea of making a huge dietary change is just too much.
Keep pushing, and they won’t appreciate you for it. They’ll get angry, tune you out, and stop inviting you over. Seriously. You feel amazing on your diet. You can’t believe how many health problems have disappeared since you started it and it breaks your heart you can’t share it with others but resist the temptation. It will fall on deaf ears anyway.
How to Help Others Handle Your Special Diet
First of all, stop right now thinking that you’re somehow less of a person because you follow a different-than-mainstream diet. You are not a weirdo, you are a pioneer. You’re doing what others are afraid to do.
Trust me, there are people out there who are gluten intolerant but won’t follow a gluten free diet due to peer pressure. They don’t care how much pain they’re in or what health problems they’ll face down the road so long as they can eat pizza and drink beer with their friends.
Whatever special diet you’re following, you’re making an informed choice about your health and, in a world afraid of all things different, that’s no small feat. It’s to be commended.
Second of all, resist the temptation to be defensive. I know how hard that can be, especially if you’re met not only with skepticism, but open mockery and disbelief. Explain why you follow your special diet, what your friends and family must do to keep you safe, and leave it at that. Speak calmly and clearly and answer any questions they have as rationally as possible. Then, change the subject.
Third of all, and possibly the most important, make others around you comfortable. Remember, they’re afraid and they don’t understand. Alleviate that fear by making explanations quick and simple. Make it light-hearted and funny if you can. Don’t dwell on your symptoms or launch into long monologues about your health. It’s the kiss of death.
If you follow a special diet for reasons other than a food allergy or illness, resist the temptation to preach or openly cringe when others swill down a diet soda and a chemical-laced donut.
Remember, they don’t want to know.
There’s another potential hazard of being on a special diet that might make you an outcast: Superiority. It can be very easy to slip into a sort of teacher/student mentality with your peers because you’ve done the hard work and learned so much. You may know what you’re talking about but this approach might further alienate you others.
Instead of preaching, lead by example. Get into cooking. Bring enough of your special dish that others can try it. It’s a great way to dissolve fear while showing others that real, healthy food can taste good. Letting them taste the food you eat everyday is the first step to bridging the gaps and opening minds.
When you’re on a special diet, it can sometimes be tempting to give into peer pressure and eat something on your no-no list. Doing this sends a clear message that it’s not as bad as you’ve made it out to be and you will no longer be taken seriously. Stick to your guns. It’s the best thing you can do for your health and social well-being.
What about you? Have you been socially ostracized because of the way you eat? If so, how have you coped? Share in the comments below!
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