Season's eatings
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Season's eatings

From InterAction 103, published December 2019

Food allergies aren’t festive, but adapting your diet to manage intolerances is easier than it’s ever been, says a very merry Patsy Quinn.

All around us are signs that Christmas is coming and it won’t just be the goose that’s getting fat; even Father Christmas is comfortably padded. The fact that this celebration falls in the depths of Winter is an excuse for stuffing ourselves, but judging by the trolleys at supermarket check-outs, people forget that stockpiling food when the shops are closed for one day only is bad for our pockets as well as our waistlines.

Earlier this year I watched two episodes of Sacred wonders, a BBC 1 series voiced by Sue Perkins. The programmes looked at celebrations integral to the major world religions. There was more similarity than difference to these events, as people came together, dressed in their best clothes, swapping gifts and eating.

Demonstration of love

Over my years of living with M.E., I’ve realised how people – of all religions and none, with or without health issues – have a tendency to equate sitting down to eat a meal with friends and family as a demonstration of love. But what if you’re gluten intolerant or allergic to shellfish or find that additives make you hyperactive? These are real problems and you don’t have to have M.E. to experience them.

Do you eat what’s placed in front of you (not if you’re allergic, obviously) or do you decline, politely, and leave yourself open to intrusive questions? In the past even my GPs have asked, “Isn’t it easier to eat what you’re given and put up with the consequences?”

Let me give you an example of what happens when I do; you might find yourself nodding with understanding. Some years back, the tutor on a course I was doing brought in a bag of satsumas. They have the most Christmassy of aromas when peeled, but knowing that citrus congests my sinuses, I debated whether to indulge.

Temptation won and I devoured piece by juicy segment. De-lish! That night, some ten hours later, I lay in bed, in agony, as my intestines produced knots a Scout would envy. So much for one of my five-a-day.

On the menu

If you live alone, it’s easier to create a meal that suits your digestive capabilities and still participate in the festival, be it Eid el-Fitr, Vaiskhi, Hanukkah, Diwali or a non-religious celebration. When you are part of a family or have been invited to join friends for the event, it pays to plan ahead. Try to find out what’s on the menu, and ask if you can have a simplified version. Giving plenty of notice enables your host/ess to provide a gut-friendly alternative, without drawing attention to you on the day.

Food is pivotal to many of the fun things in life and the choices available for those of us who struggle with edibles is so much better than 20 or even 10 years ago. Supermarkets have cottoned on to this niche market and it brings them millions of pounds in profit, as well as letting those of us who thought these foods were lost to us enjoy ourselves. Gluten-free foods have come a long way since I began eating non-wheat products in the 1980s, with the addition of cakes, sweets, even drinks that suit the guts of those whose dietary options used to be limited.

Whoever is doing the cooking, keep it simple and fresh where possible; processed food in bulk helps nobody’s body. Meals are meant to sustain us and sitting down together to “break bread” – be it gluten-free or not – is about sharing our time with those who matter to us. I’ve learned that I can make my own traditions if the existing ones don’t suit – and I detested Christmas pudding long before the M.E. arrived in my life.

You might reason that, for one day, you want to be like everyone else, and launch yourself into the nearest selection box, followed by Christmas cake and a Bailey’s Irish Cream (other alcoholic drinks are available, but not at Christmas. It’s the law).

As for me, I’ll be nibbling a gluten- free mince pie and glugging a glass of something light and sparkling (elderflower presse, with luck).