How to Support a Loved One on a Special Diet

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If a loved one is dealing with dietary restrictions, it can be tough navigating how to support them. You might want to enjoy a dinner together, but feel unsure how to prepare a meal that fits their needs. Or perhaps you want to take them out to a restaurant, but feel uncomfortable selecting a location out of fear that there won’t be the right foods available.

First off, take a deep breath. The fact that you take your loved one’s needs seriously already demonstrates just how much you care about them. With a few general tips, a little refresher on different diets, and some label reading prowess, you’ll become a pro at accommodating your friend or family member in no time at all.

General Tips

Whether you’re helping out a spouse on a special diet, or just trying to be more aware of your friends on specific meal plans. Here are some general tips to consider.

Be Understanding

Some people need to be on diets for life-threatening medical reasons, while others may choose to follow a diet for ethical or wellness reasons. 

While some diets may not seem necessary to you, it may be something your loved one is passionate about. Try to support them regardless of your own dietary views

But of course, if they’re exhibiting dangerous diet behaviors, you should talk to them and encourage them to seek medical assistance.

Consider Group Events

When people are on a special diet, they may feel excluded at group events. For example, if all the appetizers at your weekly book club always contain dairy, your friend who has a milk allergy may feel left out of the fun. If you know someone is on a special diet, think about accommodating their needs too.

Ask About Dietary Restrictions 

Many people are uncomfortable providing food to someone with dietary restrictions because they’re just not sure what is acceptable to serve. An easy way to get around this? Just ask your loved one what they can or can't eat. They’ll be able to guide you on any ingredients that are off-limits.

Investigate Recipes

 Even better than asking about restrictions? Ask for approved recipes! If you’re having a dinner party and want to make sure your vegan pal feels at home, ask her for a favorite vegan recipe that you can whip up along with your own go-to dishes.

Plan Non-Food Outings

If you’re getting together with a group of friends and several have dietary restrictions, it might be tough finding a restaurant that fits everyone’s needs. Instead, try planning events that don’t focus on food – like a local bike ride, an afternoon at the indoor trampoline park, or a concert.

Tips for Specific Diets

Even if you've asked your family or friends about their restrictions, you might still want to take time to learn more about the diet they're following. Here's a quick refresher on several common diets.

Gluten-Free Diet

People with celiac disease need to follow a gluten-free diet for life. When they eat gluten, it damages the intestinal tract and causes many health issues. Gluten refers to the proteins found in certain grains, like wheat and rye, and can be found in many unexpected foods.

How to Help:

  • Don’t rule out foods just because they don’t carry a “gluten-free” stamp of approval. Fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, and unprocessed meat are all naturally gluten-free (yet none of these will likely carry a "gluten-free" seal on them).
  • If you do the grocery shopping for someone with celiac disease, you’ll need to brush up on your label-reading skills. Though it’s derived from cereal grains, gluten is surprisingly found in many foods you would not expect – like certain sauces, chewing gums, and beer.
  • Manufacturers can choose to put a “gluten-free” claim on a food label if the product meets standards set forth by the FDA - specifically that it has less than 20 parts per million of gluten. If you’re searching for boxed foods and see this claim, it is likely an acceptable choice for your loved ones (but they should still always double-check the ingredients).
  • Use available resources, like this gluten-free foods list, to help you find safe food choices for your friends or family.
  • When searching for a restaurant, look for locations that are known to provide gluten-free choices. For example, 110 Grill and Legal Seafood are both well-known in the celiac community to offer gluten-free meals. You can also use certain gluten-free food apps to help locate a restaurant near you.

Vegetarian or Vegan Diet

People eating a vegetarian or vegan diet avoid most (or all) foods that come from animals. There are many different subcategories of this diet:

  • Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians – Do not consume meat or fish, but do consume dairy and eggs.
  • Lacto-Vegetarians – Do not consume meat, fish, or eggs, but do consume dairy.
  • Ovo-Vegetarians – Do not consume meat, fish, or dairy, but do consume eggs.
  • Vegans – Avoid all animal products and byproducts (including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey, etc.); the strictest subcategory.

How to Help:

  • Ask your loved one to clarify exactly what type of diet they practice. While a cheesy vegetable lasagna might go over well with your vegetarian husband, your vegan friend would need to pass on it. Understanding exactly what they avoid will help you to accommodate them.
  • If someone in your family has decided to embrace a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle – but the rest of the family doesn’t – make meals that can easily be adapted for everyone’s needs. For example, a DIY taco bar can have ground beef for the meat-lovers and beans for the plant-based eater.
  • Look for vegan restaurants to check out. These days, most major urban and suburban areas have at least one nearby. Not only will your loved one appreciate the thoughtfulness, but you’ll likely be able to try something new.
  • Use available resources like this one week vegan meal plan or vegan cookbooks to help provide menu inspiration when cooking for a loved one.

Sugar-Free Diet

Most of the time, when someone says they are on a sugar-free diet they are referring to limiting added sugar – like cutting that which is in your favorite fresh baked cookies or pumpkin spice latte. 

Sometimes, a person may try to reduce all forms of sugar in their diet, including naturally occurring sugar. This is often called a low sugar diet and may be attempted as one way to reduce carbohydrate intake and lose weight. It would be nearly impossible to completely eliminate all sugar, though, as even vegetables contain natural sugar.

How to Help:

  • Ask your loved one to clarify whether they are avoiding added sugar, or whether they are trying to reduce all forms of sugar in their diet (including naturally occurring sugar).
  • If you want to whip up a dessert for a loved one on a sugar-free diet, experiment with some of the alternative sweeteners. Stevia and xylitol are two common products that don’t contain sugar yet provide a sweet flavor in baked goods. You can find lots of helpful recipes to guide you, like this sugar-free biscotti or no-added-sugar chocolate ganache.
  • If you’re cooking a meal for someone on a sugar-free diet, focus on whole foods. A basic protein with a side of fresh vegetables is almost always a safe bet! Try making a grilled steak with a side of asparagus, or roasted chicken with a side of broccoli.
  • The FDA passed a regulation that will require manufacturers to include added sugars on nutrition facts labels. You might already be seeing these changes on some packaging, and all packaging will need to comply by 2021. This will make it easy for you to choose no-added-sugar foods when shopping for family members on a sugar-free diet.

Lactose-Intolerant Diet

When someone is lactose intolerant, they’re unable to break down all of the sugar – called lactose – in milk products. The body doesn’t produce enough of a key enzyme, lactase, that’s normally used to break down this sugar. As such, someone with lactose intolerance experiences digestive upset when they eat dairy products high in lactose.

How to Help:

  • If you're caring for a child with lactose intolerance, you'll probably want to limit regular milk, soft cheese, and ice cream in their diet. Cooking with butter is fine, though, and small portions of hard cheese and yogurt may be tolerated depending on the child.
  • The amount of lactose varies in different dairy products. While someone with lactose intolerance may not be able to chug down a glass of milk, they might be just fine snacking on a small container of Greek yogurt. Ask your loved ones if there are any dairy products that they can tolerate, as they’ll likely know best.
  • Try stocking up on a lactose-free milk product. You could choose a special dairy milk where the lactose has already been broken down (like Lactaid, for example), or you could choose a milk alternative like almond milk or soy milk.
  • You don’t have to do too much detective work to find a good restaurant for eating out. There are many low lactose dishes at major restaurants, and many dishes can also be adapted. When in doubt, just look for main dishes that don't contain milk, creamy sauces, or lots of cheese.

A Word from Verywell

Remember, you don’t have to become an expert in every special diet just to host a dinner party. Use your family and friends as resources for recipes, or look for options at the store that are clearly labeled for their needs (i.e. vegan, gluten free, etc.). Of course, if you still don’t feel comfortable – a potluck is always a great alternative and makes everyone feel at home.

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