I am your living nightmare diner. You know the sort I mean, the complete pain in the arse customer you dread walking through your door. Yes, I am the one that asks to see the allergen menu and then reels off a whole list of foods I can’t eat. I’m left nervously waiting, hoping, praying that you do have something that I can actually eat. That I’m not about to ruin everyone else’s night that I’m out with, dragging them from restaurant to restaurant, just to find somewhere I can actually sit down. You’re left scratching your head wondering “Why is she bothering to eat out in the first place? And why did she have to pick here?”
So we do sit down and the menu battle begins. I’ll fire out the first round of ingredients I’m avoiding. Gluten, onion, garlic… and wait to see if the menu holds up. The serving staff may be able to return fire with a selection of dishes I can have. If the restaurant is well armed I may be bombarded with pages and pages of excel spreadsheets, precision crosshairs marking each allergen target.
Ah but you see, my ingredients, the foods I’m avoiding aren’t actually covered by the any of the 14 EU regulated allergens. The spreadsheets are cast aside as I ask about apple, or honey. Peas, cabbage, mango, cashew nuts. Front of house retreats to the kitchen to speak with the chef.
Nope, that dish isn’t any good. I try again with something else. A second trip to consult with the chef. Front of house waivers, exhausted with the constant barrage of ingredients to check. My fellow diners are left waiting, tapping their menus hungry to see who will be the victor. It’s a drawn out and long winded confrontation and it’s uncomfortable.
Then the chef takes control. I’m in trouble. “It’s ok madam, the chef has said he can take this dish and we can strip everything out so there’s no chance of you eating something you shouldn’t.” “No, no!” I protest, “It’s intolerances, not allergens, there’s really no need to be extreme…” but too late, I’m waving my white napkin in surrender as I’m served with the ‘A’ bomb trump card from the chef that blasts everything in its path leaving only a plate of beige.
It wasn’t always like this. I used to love food. And food loved me. I remember a holiday in the States where I was the queen of the all you can eat buffet breakfast, winning every food challenge made. Scoobydoo had nothing on me, I could have beaten him under the table any day. I simply loved my food.
But then the unthinkable happened. Food and I had a big falling out. A colossal parting of the ways. It was messy and it was painful. The hormone changes of hitting 40 with a then undiagnosed genetic syndrome caused a range of niggling symptoms to tip over the edge.
I had brain fog which I can only describe as having your head stuffed full of cotton wool. Your thoughts are there somewhere but they’re buried so deep in fluff and wadding that you just can’t get to them.
I had no energy. Getting myself out of bed each day took every ounce of effort to lift and drag around the sack of potatoes that had been tied to each limb, probably by the elephant that sat all night on my head while I slept.
I had zero exercise tolerance. The slightest exertion would bring on a bout of flu-like symptoms every month that would leave me floored.
Migraines, I can’t tell you how many times I fantasized about being able to take a can opener to my head to rip open my skull and relieve some of that pressure that was building up inside. I was miserable.
Consultants loved it, I’d become this pinata of symptoms for them to bash a diagnosis out of. You name it, I’ve had it poked, prodded or had a camera stuck up or down it. There was no room left for dignity. But it all drew a blank.
By then I was beginning to rely on walking sticks to get about, my back brace was part of my dressing routine. I was losing weight, I went from 10 and a half to just over 9 stone. But that was within the BMI index so that didn’t matter, apparently.
Come morning I sounded like a blocked drain and quite often smelt like a sewer. My stomach felt like an overstuffed sausage. We all have to eat, or we die, but you try eating when you feel so full that you think you might vomit as you swallow each mouthful. I was trapped, held ransom by my stomach. I could barely eat in, let alone eat out.
The GPs didn’t believe me, I was branded a middle aged crazy lady not coping with children. They dreaded my visits too, which had become about once a month. I was one of those ‘heart sink’ patients that make them sigh and look at the floor. They’re there to fix people and that wasn’t possible with me. They hadn’t a clue what to do except prescribe some anti depressants and peppermint oil tablets for the IBS. “It’s just IBS!” they say. They thought I was mad. I thought I was dying. After four years of feeling completely awful I was about to be written off with ME and chronic fatigue.
Then I got a diagnosis. It was a Eureka! moment. I’ve an underlying chronic condition, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, I’m hypermobile. My digestive IBS type issues were the biggest drivers behind my symptoms. I was instructed to go on the Low FODMAP diet. “Low what?” you might ask. I hadn’t heard of the low FODMAP diet either.
It actually stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. FODMAPs are highly osmotic and draw in water into the large bowel, hence my toilet woes.
What it boiled down to was this. No gluten. No onion. No garlic (which is no good when you’ve french blood) plus a whole host of other ingredients which I’d discovered really upset my gut. It was really, really difficult. If it was tasty I probably couldn’t eat it.
But then I started to feel better. My energy started to come back. The cotton wool was peeled away from my brain. I woke up with a hunger pang! A hunger pang, I get so excited when I feel those now! So I’ve stuck with it. I’ve been low FODMAP for 3 and a half years now. My gut has healed to the extent I’ve been able to reintroduce some foods I’ve really missed, like sourdough bread. And avocado in small amounts.
I’ve never felt so good. I feel epic. I have a cast iron immune system. Best of all my doctors miss me! (well, maybe not) but you get the picture, I can’t actually remember the last time I went to see my GP.
Food has become my medicine. If I can know what I’m eating I can stick to what I know works for me, and I can stay fighting fit. I’m discovering the joy of eating again. Just because food doesn’t like me, it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving food. And I’m not alone. There’s a whole army of diners like me out there.
And we are on the rise.
The low FODMAP diet has a fantastic 70-75% success rate for helping IBS sufferers manage their symptoms, which currently stands at around 15% of the UK population. It’s actually now listed on the nhs website as one of the ways for IBS patients to self manage their symptoms. But it’s most definately not a one size fits all solution. You work out with the help of a registered dietician which foods are good for you, and cut out those that aren’t. So each person has their own individual restricted food list. Which means requests for menu hacking will increase.
YouGov carried out research last year to discover just what was happening with the freefrom market. 19% of the population in the UK have either coeliac disease (1%), food allergies (6%), or food intolerances (12%). But a recent Mintel survey show a staggering 26% of people opting to eat free from as a lifestyle choice, not because of any medical reason, but because it makes them feel better. And it probably does, take my word for it, I know first hand just how positive or destructive food can be on your body.
This whole experience has been, and still is, my motivation to start TreatOut which is a food tech startup partnering with restaurants to deliver full menu transparency. You, the restaurants feed us your ingredients data for your dishes. Then, by creating a personalised food profile, our diners tell us the foods they can’t eat, and we show them the dishes they can eat. Since we’ve started work on TreatOut we have been inundated with people telling us how they can’t eat out but desperately wish they could. These diners are really excited about what we are doing. Take a look at our testimonial page to see for yourself.
We may be food challenged but we want to come in to your restaurant to enjoy eating out. You may feel you have to treat us as special, but we just crave to be normal. At the moment we feel very neglegted, unwanted even by the food service sector. So, please, please let us be foodies again.
Because you see, actually I’m your dream customer. Eating is social. I don’t dine alone. I bring family. I bring my friends too. My stomach leads the way. So learn to love me and love my stomach. Let us have menu transparency and start to access that untapped market of hungry food restricted diners. I promise you, we’ll be your loyal customers for life.
Zombie diners printed with kind permission by:
Jenah College – Author and Make Up Artist
Rachael Eve Cody, Rosie Hordon-Clark, James Hogg – Models
David K Newton – Photographer
in association with Spectral Visions, University of Sunderland.