“No bread? No beer? You’re kidding me!”
I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease almost 7 years ago but can clearly remember my doctor’s response to my initial, shocked discontent.
The scrubs-clan doc calmly looked at me and said, “You know, Mr. Walsh, you’ll have no meds to take and will feel better right away. This seems like a fantastic solution to me.”
That comment shut me up but did not dispel my worry for adopting a new, gluten-free diet.
I wasn’t concerned for my sake. I knew I’d come around – I had no choice. I was worried about the impact for my family.
Questions swirled in my head:
Would my wife and kids have to follow my new diet?
Are there adequate substitutes for staples like bread (and beer)?
Can I afford all of the new food I’ll have to buy?
I imagine these are normal questions for any family dealing with a new food allergy – whether it be the diagnosis of a child or a parent.
Whether the whole family should follow the impacted person’s eating plan is not a right or wrong decision – there is no clear answer.
When faced with that choice, my family evaluated three questions.
(1) Is this an allergy or an intolerance?
A diagnosed allergy may require wholesale, entire family changes while an intolerance may not – understanding the difference between the two is a helpful first step.
An allergy causes a reaction in the body that is damaging to organs over time.
An intolerance will typically cause a reaction that is less severe and can be prevented by subtle changes – like eating less versus cutting out something altogether.
Having an allergy pushes the decision to switch the entire family’s diet immediately to the next level.
(2) Can the allergen be airborne and susceptible to cross-contamination?
If the household allergy can be triggered via indirect means, the entire family needs to seriously consider adhering to the new diet.
Allergic reactions severe enough to be brought on by the mere presence of the allergen require major changes that forbid that substance from entering the house.
A more difficult assessment involves whether a family could be unintentionally causing an allergic reaction by not adhering to the new diet.
For example, if I was eating a gluten-free diet while my family was not and we all shared a toaster, I could be awakening my allergy with each piece of sand-paper-like G.F. toast. The same holds true for silverware or even using substances that are powdery enough to be passed through the air.
If there is a high likelihood of accidentally triggering the allergic reaction, it makes sense to think deeply about switching all family members over to the new regimen.
If there are minimal chances at inadvertent allergic reactions, then families should have affirmation that the new diet may not be required for all.
(3) Are the changes needed to convert everyone intrusive?
Let’s face it – we are much more likely to adhere to a new eating plan if the options to do so are affordable, available and convenient.
The preponderance of allergies in children has made accessibility to allergy-friendly alternatives easy – no fancy specialty stores are required.
When I started to be gluten-free, there was one type of G.F. pasta at my supermarket which cost double for half of the quantity of a normal, wheat-based product. Today, there are multitudes of gluten-free products at reasonable prices – albeit, still slightly more costly than the usual brands.
After the allergy-friendly alternatives are purchased, the next hurdle is whether other family members will like them.
The available alternatives, at least in my case, are an acquired taste. It is not likely that everyone in the family will be clamoring for dairy-free cheese or edamame spaghetti noodles.
When fellow family members don’t (or won’t) come around to these new tastes, you’ll have to evaluate the intrusion of making parallel meals when thinking about converting everyone.
Your family may not be impacted by an allergy yet, but the statistics say you will. When an allergy diagnosis knocks, please be savvier than I was.
At a minimum, consider your reaction in light of the three questions I posed above.
Thinking through them can either ease the transition of the entire family, or help in affirming the safety of the person with the allergy if you continue all non-allergic family members as is.
Either way, you will learn what I have over the years – that there are far worse life sentences than simply having to eat differently.
That rings true, even if gluten-free beer really does suck.