5 steps to keep food allergies and dietary restrictions from taking over your workday

Dietary restrictions can often be a barrier in our food-centric culture. Whether they’re religious restrictions — like avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or pork — or allergies, principled choices or health problems, a different diet can sometimes be a barrier to socializing with colleagues. Being vegan, vegetarian or having an intolerance to common foods products like gluten, dairy or soy can pose a challenge when lunch time rolls around at work, but it doesn’t always have to be a struggle by any means.

As hard as it may be to feel like you’re missing out on enjoying everyday foods at work and at home, there are ways to make sure you get the food you need to keep your energy levels up at lunch, and to stay motivated.

1. Know as much as you can about your restrictions

You have the power to find food you love, and that works for you. But first, you have to know what to look for at the supermarket or in the office cafeteria. There are always surprises — things you thought you couldn’t have that you really can. Consider talking to a medical professional about your diet options to get a good overview of what to seek out.

If you’ve gone gluten-free, websites like the Mayo Clinic and Celiac Disease Foundation also provide lists of foods that might work for you and what to watch out for.

Also, if your company provides food during the workday, be sure you’re as crystal-clear as you can be on the ingredients used so you steer clear of substances you’re avoiding.

2. Ask for changes

You don’t have to assume that there’s no way your diet would be welcome at work. Often, food that’s consistent with dietary restrictions can also be healthier for everyone, and many schools and workplaces are incorporating those options. If they aren’t already, many will listen to what employees ask; there’s no point, after all, in providing food that people can’t or won’t eat.

An example: Cornell University and Kent State opened “the first certified gluten-free dining halls” this academic year, the New York Times reported.

Cornell senior Amber Terschak has celiac disease, a corn allergy and Type 1 diabetes.

“It’s a huge relief to know I’m never going to become sick because of the food I eat here…Just to be able to eat a grilled cheese again is incredible,” she told the publication.


3. Make sure you have your own snacks or food ready most days

Dietary restrictions can be an adjustment, but if you pack or find foods in the office that you can wholeheartedly eat and enjoy, lunches at work or out with your team at restaurants are more manageable.

The Celiac Foundation lists specific types of foods that don’t have gluten in them, including: fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, dairy, beans, nuts, legumes, seafood and fish, and a variety of grains.

But what should you think about when getting your grain fix?

Michael F. Picco, M.D. offers advice to someone with Celiac Disease seeking grains
on the Mayo Clinic’s website.

“When possible, choose foods made with enriched flours for added vitamins and minerals. Whole grains are even better for you. These include brown, black or wild rice, quinoa, amaranth, pure buckwheat, corn, cornmeal, popcorn, millet, gluten-free oats, sorghum and teff,” Picco writes.

4. Make room for desserts and indulgences

Restrictions can be hard to live with, even if we choose them — so it’s important to vary your diet to avoid feeling as if you’re in food prison. For example, being vegan doesn’t mean you can’t spoil yourself too.

Tracey Chang wrote about the path to a vegan diet in for Reuters, and featured advice from vegan personal chef Jesse Miner.

“For sugary cravings, Miner suggests fruit, dark chocolate (most are vegan), sorbets and nondairy (often soy) ice creams, which can be found in grocery stores,” Chang wrote.

She added that, unlike Oprah Winfrey’s health challenge undertaken by herself 378 of her employees to go vegan for a week, Miner says you should take a minimum of one month to get used to the diet, because a week isn’t a long enough time to “develop good habits or a routine.”

5. Find nearby places to grab food that works for you

Chances are, if your office doesn’t provide a whole lot of meals that you can enjoy within your diet, or if you’re just in the mood for other options, you’re going to want to grab lunch somewhere else.

One day when you have a bit of downtime, pick up an outside option from a nearby restaurant or marketplace on a walk during your lunch break. Just keep in mind that if the food was prepared ahead of time, there’s no way to tell that it doesn’t contain a substance you’re not eating. Ask questions about the menu to make sure you won’t get sick. And if you have powerful food allergies, you already know to have an EpiPen on you. For weaker allergies, keep an antihistamine pill on hand, which can be helpful.

Having a couple of safe places to order from on busy days can also be a big help when you don’t have much time to search for food that you could really go for. And when it comes time to suggest a place for lunch with colleagues, you can always invite them along to your favorite place.