How to Help Your Friends with Dietary Restrictions

I recently sat down with my housemate, Amelia Nicholas, to talk about how to help your friends with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Amelia has a severe gluten intolerance, which she realized approximately a year and a half ago, and she graciously granted me an interview on how to help friends through such a time of change.

There are approximately 2.5 million Canadians with food allergies, and as different diets become contextually more accessible for Canadians, more and more people are making the switch to gluten-free, dairy-free, or meat-free diets. While the reasons for different dietary restrictions vary from individual to individual, one thing is clear - those with non-dietary restrictions need to learn how to understand, and treat, their friends and family members who can’t eat certain food items or groups.

Be Supportive

Amelia: The big thing is to be supportive. Obviously, it’s a hard and scary thing to deal with for the person, and if you’re having that person over, it’s really nice when you have options for them. Check in with them to see if they’re comfortable with you making the food, and don’t get offended if they aren’t. It can be a scary concept for people. Don’t get offended if they bring their own food, or if they don’t eat anything, or if they decline to go to a restaurant.

Making sure your friends feel supported and a valued part of your friend group is one of the best ways to help them through hard life and diet changes. Remember that this is probably very scary or uncomfortable for them, and it can be awkward to have to discuss food boundaries. One of the best things you can do is to make sure they don’t feel like an inconvenience or like they’re being difficult. Treat food allergies and restrictions with the same respect and support that you would any other lifestyle change.

Group of three women talking at work Photo by CoWomen from Unsplash

Be Understanding

Amelia: People aren’t necessarily understanding, which makes it really hard for people who have dietary restrictions. Whether it’s a choice or not, people don’t implement restrictions just on a whim. People often feel justified in asking you to justify your choices. Do what you need to do, and what is best for you.

I don’t think that respecting people’s decisions and boundaries requires you to understand them, but it does help. Chances are, they’re just trying to figure out how to help themselves, and it is double the frustration to also have to explain the change to other people as well. And try not to ask for the justification or the reason behind the change. Your friends will tell you, or they won’t, but it should make no difference in how you try to help them and respect their choices.

Consider Their Needs at Group Events

Amelia: Research fun alternatives, reach out beforehand, and ask them if they want to bring their own food, if they’re okay with you making food, or if they have any suggestions on the brand and/or type of food they feel comfortable with eating.

If your friend has a new dietary restriction, do some research, and try to meet them halfway. There have often been suggestions to consider social events that don’t revolve around food, but it might make your friend feel like they’re an inconvenience. Food is also a highly social event, and a friend having a dietary restriction does not mean that there is no enjoyable food and meals that can be made. It’s becoming easier and more accessible to find different food options, and it never hurts to ask your friends what they eat, and where they get it from.

Ask Them About Their Dietary Restrictions

Amelia: Take the initiative to try and help, and obviously, it’s okay to ask that person what they need. If you want to show them you care, just ask.

 If you’re in doubt, ask, ask, ask. I guarantee that your friend will appreciate your support and concern, and it is always better to ask than assume. If someone has a wheat allergy, it doesn’t mean that they eat the same thing as your other friend with a wheat allergy. And even if Google says it's okay, sometimes your friend will have different boundaries, needs, and preferences. Don’t be afraid to not know things. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.

And lastly,

Amelia had some advice for people who have just recently discovered dietary restrictions and allergies.

Amelia: I would say, firstly - you don’t have to justify anything to anyone. Do you. Different people have different boundaries, and it’s up to you to figure out yours, and the risks you’re willing to take. It is also incredibly hard and scary and frustrating at first, but it does get better. You will learn, and grow, and find out that you can still eat and enjoy food.