Surviving the holidays with dietary restrictions

Having dietary restrictions is difficult throughout the year, but around the

holidays, coping with this challenge becomes even harder. With endless amounts of food being offered by relatives and friends, and nearly every gathering surrounding a meal, it feels nearly impossible to remain on a diet and still enjoy the time everyone is spending together. However, after 10 years of living with over five different dietary restrictions to keep my Crohn’s disease in remission, I have found a few key tips to staying sane and participating in the festivities while managing my health at the same time. 

  • Find substitutions or alternatives: Every year for Hanukkah, my family makes Latkes and sugar cookies in the shape of the star of David. When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 11, and could no longer eat gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, sugar, corn, and a list of smaller things like cranberries and seeds, it felt like I couldn’t enjoy our traditional favorites. To my surprise, there are TONS of recipes out there with modifications. I made a Pinterest board that had all my dietary-friendly latkes and sugar cookies recipes, and while they might have been a little different, it was a part of a new adventure in the kitchen, and I was reminded of the special treats I’d had throughout my childhood. 
  • Focus on the activities: On Thanksgiving of my sophomore year of high school, I had just been discharged from the hospital and had recently started on nutritional support therapy, with 80% of my calories being made up simply from drinking nutritional shakes. So, as you can guess, a full spread of food to sit in front of for hours sounded like an obstacle course. While I was only able to enjoy a few mashed potatoes and applesauce, I tried to move my attention from the food and onto a family game instead. I came up with a game that I could help organize while we ate dessert, drawing pictures and passing them around to create a story. This distracted me from the pumpkin pie and ice cream on the table and allowed me to still enjoy the company of my friends and family without feeling left out. 
  • Communicate your needs: If you don’t want to have to prepare in advance, sometimes, communicating your needs with friends and family will encourage others to take the lead and help out. In my experience, when I let family members know what I can’t eat and why, they are more than happy to help and make alternatives for me. One Christmas at my Grandpa’s, my Great-Aunt made the Sweet Potatoes without butter so I could eat them and had people add it on top for those who could have it. That way, we could all enjoy the same foods and everyone’s preferences and needs were valued.
  • Bring your own food: Dietary restrictions can be hard to understand for people who don’t live with it every day, and while family can be more than willing to help out and try to make alternatives, sometimes I trust the food I cook the best because I know is safe for me. While it might require a bit of prep, bringing your own food that is ingredient-safe will ensure a worry-free night where your stomach can be both full and happy. 

Navigating a time of the year filled with food and festivities can be difficult, but I always remind myself that I have to put my health first, and if I focus on checking in with my body, and taking care of myself, I’ll have happier and healthier holidays all around. As my nutritionist once told me, having all these dietary restrictions and living with a chronic illness at a young age is my opportunity to take care of myself and learn to work with my body while I am young. This lesson has helped me get through times that might feel like a struggle and try to find the opportunity in the challenges I face while living with IBD. 

Emma Goodman-Fish is an IBD patient from Oregon and a member of the Foundation's National Council of College Leaders.