The low FODMAP diet, or really any medically necessary diet, can be really isolating.
It can make you feel alone, misunderstood, and a giant inconvenience. While you’re busy navigating one of the most restrictive, non-sensical diets out there – you not only have to content with label reading, picking the right foods, and making a shift to your planning – but you ALSO have to navigate the impacts it has on your relationships at work, at home, and when you go out with friends.
While most people are well-meaning (often in their desire to understand and relate) their questions can put you on edge. Make you feel judged, singled out, and unheard.
As someone who counsels patients, it’s not the diet changes (though hard!) that are the most challenging – it’s how we relate to our family, friends, and co-workers through food, our new restrictions, and our chronic disease.
I’ve shared my IBS story before about how I was embarrassed to admit I had IBS when I was first diagnosed, because of the stigma.
To get the support we need, often times, discussing with family, setting expectations and boundaries, and asking for what you REALLY NEED is important.
Here I discuss top barriers I see, and how you can help your family members, friends, and colleagues better understand your IBS.
How to Support Someone on the Low FODMAP Diet – Biggest Barriers & How to Overcome Them
People asking well-meaning questions
In an effort to understand what someone with IBS goes through, we often ask questions – to better relate and understand. Questions can be helpful – but sometimes can make a person feel really singled out. I find it best to frame it in a way that allows the person to establish boundaries works best. Asking them ‘I don’t know a lot about IBS, is it ok if I ask you some questions so I can understand?’
Not feeling supported
One of the BIGGEST barriers I see in patients doing what they need to do for themselves is a lack of support. Now – it’s important to know – this can be perceived, or real. What is important is, understanding that how they feel is real. Even if you feel like you’re rocking’ it in supporting your loved one, ask them – what can I do to support you on this journey? Sometimes it’s help. Sometimes it’s space. Sometimes it’s helping them find help. By opening those lines of communication, you can make them feel heard and supported.
The feeling of isolation can come from many different directions. I find people will all-together avoid social situations because of their diet or symptoms, either because it’s too hard, or too embarrassing to be ‘the person at the table with all the dietary requirements’. Continue to invite your low FODMAP friends out! I find language like ‘oh – we can’t eat this or go there BECAUSE of your diet’ can feel really accusatory – despite the fact that you’re probably just trying to be helpful. Asking them ‘is there anything we can do to make this easier for you?” can be a helpful question. It may mean the low-FODMAPPER bringing their own dish to a party, or serving a few FODMAP safe items, or it might mean them choosing a restaurant they feel safe with.
People making assumptions
With any condition, it is common to make assumptions about how a person feels, what a person can eat, and how a person manages their care. A phrase I often hear, especially when patients eat with family is ‘Oh, I thought you couldn’t have that’, or ‘Why are you eating that, last week you told me you couldn’t have it’. This often leaves the person feeling they need to justify their actions. Food choices are personal. They’re made based on how we feel, our proximity to food, our emotions, and where we are at on the diet. The low FODMAP diet is NOT an all-or-nothing diet, unlike a gluten free diet for celiac disease. I explain how FODMAP tolerance is like a bucket in my article here to help you better understand.
Respect a persons choice to make food decisions – you are not the food police and it is not productive to comment on a persons food choices.
Feeling like their symptoms are ‘all in their head’
IBS is NOT a diagnosis of exclusion and it is NOT ‘all in your head’. It is a REAL condition, with REAL diagnostic criteria, and ~20% of Canadians have it! Some phrases I often here are ‘so-and-so must be crazy because they have IBS’, or ‘so-and-so’s symptoms can’t be that bad – it’s just IBS’. We have to change the language in which we talk about IBS to shift perspective. To learn more about IBS, read my article here.
Not being taken seriously
Symptoms of IBS can be debilitating. Severe constipation can be excruitating. Bloating can leave you feeling uncomfortable and drained. Diarrhea can make you terrified of not being within 20 ft of a bathroom at all times. Listening to your loved ones, and what it’s like living with IBS is SO key to making them feel less alone. Expressing compassion can help them let go of some of the stress around their symptoms ‘not being serious enough’. A phrase I like to use is ‘this must be really hard for you to feel X. Did you want to talk about it?’ Open the door for compassion and understanding, while allowing the person to decide how much they’re willing to share today.
A feeling of loss
When you’re diagnosed with IBS, and are undergoing the low FODMAP diet – it can be met with a sense of loss. Why can’t I feel as good as I used to? Is this my life now? Will I always have to think about food and my symptoms this much? It can be frustrating, and I know personally – my heart aches for my ‘old self’ sometimes – especially when I’m unwell. Give them space to explore those feelings – rather than our typical this-day-and-age mentality of ‘just get over it’ or ‘things will be better’. Instead – reminding people it’s OK to feel exactly how their feeling can be far more helpful.
I teach self-compassion in my practice, which involves:
- Awareness – what are you feeling in the moment (name it to tame it!)
- Acknowledging – this is really hard for me right now I’m struggling with feeling X
- Commonality of suffering – it’s OK to feel exactly how you’re feeling
- Compassion – may I be patient and kind with myself
Incorporating elements of self-compassion and compassion can help to improve resilience and understanding.
Take Away Notes
I find helping support someone on the low FODMAP diet takes understanding, communication, compassion, and open ended questions. IBS often has patients feeling like they have a lack of control over their health and well-being. Put them in the drivers seat by asking questions in a compassionate and understanding way – that allows THEM to set the boundaries and reduce how isolating this disease can be.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your IBS or the low FODMAP diet, or are struggling with gut issues – our dietitians can help. We specialize in gut health, and helping people manage their IBS from a holistic perspective. Learn more about IBS diet counselling here!