There I was, propped up in bed late at night watching the BCC’s Girls Can Code on the iPad, in awe of building a tech startup when it suddenly hit me. What exactly is my problem? Of course it has to be my stomach. Or rather, how restaurants don’t cope with feeding my stomach.
Since being diagnosed about 2 and a half years ago with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, I’ve been following the low FODMAP diet, primarily to treat my IBS type symptoms. The low FODMAP diet is restrictive, certainly not for the feint hearted, and must be taken with supervision from a registered dietician to ensure you maintain a balance diet. But, boy is it worth it for me.
Prior to thinking about what food I ate, I was in a pretty bad way. I had brain fog, frequent, thumping migraines, I ached, I had painful muscle cramps and was losing weight. Just trying to get out of bed was a struggle, with what felt like a bag of potatoes tied to each limb. Every day my throat was sore and my stomach gurgled like a blocked drain. Life was not comfortable.
But what a difference food makes! My symptoms are now managed mainly by diet and I’ve gone from pretty much giving up hope to relaunching a career as a web designer. I’ve found a new zest for life and I’m loving every minute of it.
Sadly, I don’t love eating out. Don’t get me wrong, I adore food. Well, I did, but the downside of my diet is that hardly anyone has heard of it. I am that nightmare guest you really don’t want to invite to dinner. The government recently brought in new legislation to highlight the 14 allergens on menus, and gluten free options are thankfully becoming more widely available. But what if your intolerances don’t fall into those categories, because let’s be honest here, life just isn’t that simple? My main offenders are foods like onions and garlic (that’s really tough being half french). Apples are out, and so are fruits like mangoes and apricot. Add gluten and lactose. Peas, cabbage and cauliflower. So that’s most menu items off my list.
If I’m planning to eat out, it’s been sensible to contact the venue in advance and let them know what foods I have to avoid, asking nicely (hoping madly) that I can be accommodated. I’m always assured I can be, but I can count on one hand the number of times a restaurant has actually got it right for me. I was once told that my dietary request had not been looked at until the previous day. After a mad flurry to find something that wasn’t covered in garlic, a piece of steak was offered and a melon salad to start, but it was served covered in raw red onion. Another time I was really impressed with the time and trouble a caterer had taken to serve me a modified starter and main, only to find they’d fail miserably with the desserts and cheese courses. They’d forgotten to get the foods we’d agreed on weeks before. So I sat with their apology on my napkin whilst the rest of the table tucked into the full four course servings.
I’m not angry, after all I know I’m difficult to cater for, but surely there has to be a better way? That’s my burning problem, right there, the dilemma that I am determined to ‘fix’ and the inspiration behind TreatOut. With TreatOut I’m hoping I’ll be able to relay my issues with confidence to the kitchens. I’m hoping that when I’m out and about, I’ll be able to find a restaurant that can adapt a dish to feed me.
Make no mistake, I’m not on my own, the British market for gluten-free alone is expected to grow to £561m by 2017(1). But this has to be done right, with education and awareness not only for the restaurants, but the diners too. There’s much confusion over what’s an allergy or intolerance, and people are sceptical as to whether peoples’ diet changes are based on fact or fad. Believe me, I don’t ‘choose’ to have such a restricted diet, but when it’s that, or live with a body and mind in constant pain it’s a no brainer.
This idea is gaining momentum. In just four weeks I have three partners. Plus, and I’m still pinching myself in disbelief, I’m thrilled that I’ve been accepted onto the 5th cohort of Google’s startup programme Campus for Mums and Dads. Together at TreatOut, we aim to improve communication between restaurateurs & diners with food allergies/intolerances. For tonight, I’ll dream of making spontaneous eating out possible for all.
1. No sign of gluten-free growth stalling By Nicholas Robinson+, 06-Jan-2014