Don’t let your GI condition take the “jolly” out of your holidays

For most, the holiday season is a time to enjoy friends, family, festivities and food. Lots of food. Lots of food they might not usually indulge in.

For individuals who suffer from a GI condition, all that food can present quandaries: “Do I go ahead and eat a slice of Aunt Betty’s special pie even though I know it will make me sick, or do I risk hurting her feelings by turning it down?” “I know I shouldn’t have seconds, but everything looks so good.”

Add in travel, stress and fatigue, and the holidays can easily become a recipe for GI disaster. If you’re one of millions of Americans suffering from a gastrointestinal disorder, know that with proper planning it is possible to enjoy the festivities and take care of your health. If you’re hosting a holiday gathering, keep in mind that some of your guests may have special dietary requirements.

Before providing some “holiday survival tips,” first I’ll give a brief description of a few common GI conditions.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a name given to a group of chronic digestive diseases of the small and large intestines caused by inflammation. Most often, doctors divide IBD into two groups: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The chief complaint of IBD is diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) (different condition than IBD). Like Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome causes pain and cramps, diarrhea and/or constipation, bloating and gas. However the cause is not inflammation, but is thought to relate to the muscle contractions of the intestinal muscles either being too frequent or too infrequent, either speeding up food’s journey or slowing it down.

Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD) is a physical condition in which acid from the stomach flows backward up into the esophagus. Heartburn is the number one symptom of acid reflux. If you have a burning feeling in your chest or a sour taste in your mouth, you are likely suffering from acid reflux. Chronic heartburn (at least two times per week) is referred to as GERD.

Celiac Disease is an inherited, autoimmune disease that damages the lining of the small intestine when gluten is ingested. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity is a condition that causes symptoms similar to Celiac disease when gluten is consumed. Gluten can be found in many common food items, including breads, cakes, candy, cereal, condiments, cookies, pasta, pizza, pretzels and soups. A person with Celiac disease may experience intermittent diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, upset stomach, irritability, depression, joint pain, muscle cramps, fatigue or anemia.

Successfully managing the symptoms of any of these conditions requires following a proper diet, which makes the following tips relevant not only during the holidays but throughout the year, as well.

  1. Back off the buffet. While it is tempting to dive into a bountiful buffet table, doing so can cause you to pay later with a flare up of symptoms. Try eating smaller meals throughout the day and never skips meals to allow for more food later. As always, be sure to avoid trigger foods that you know will cause problems.
  2. BYOF (Bring your own food). In many situations, it may be best to bring along something to eat that you know to be safe. Unless the gathering is one where it is appropriate to share your dish with guests, be discrete when bringing your own food to avoid offending the host. An important note for those who can’t eat gluten: If you bring something to share at a potluck buffet, first reserve enough for yourself and don’t go back for seconds. Your dish could be cross-contaminated from other serving utensils on the buffet.
  3. Don’t overdo the drinks. Drinks containing alcohol, caffeine or carbonation are most likely to trigger acid reflux symptoms and should be avoided by those with GERD. For some individuals with IBD, even moderate alcohol consumption can cause a flare up of symptoms. Perhaps have a sip or two, but then switch to something safer. If you’re avoiding gluten, you probably know that most beer is off limits. However, you could bring your own gluten-free beer. Also be careful when drinking flavored drinks, as the flavoring may contain gluten. The Celiac Disease Foundation says that all fruits are gluten-free and safe for people with celiac disease to consume, meaning that wine, champagne and sparkling wines are safe.
  4. Eat before you go. If you’re headed out to a holiday gathering, eat something safe before you go so that you’re not tempted to overindulge in off-limit foods. To avoid offending a host who is offering something you shouldn’t have, comment on how lovely the food looks or how good it smells and have a small taste if possible. If you think it’s safer not to have even a bite, offer your congratulations on a lovely dish and say that you’re sorry that your dietary restrictions don’t permit you to enjoy it. Avoid going into a lot of details, as they often make people uncomfortable, but if your host is apt to get his/her feelings hurt, tell them discreetly of your condition. This will prevent offense and also help educate your host that these conditions are common.
  5. Be prepared. Have a backup snack ready in case you can’t eat anything offered, be sure to bring along any necessary medications, and whenever possible let your host know in advance about any special dietary needs.

If you’re hosting a party, keep in mind that some of your guests may have medical conditions that prevent them from eating certain kinds of food or consuming some drinks. Remember that they’re not just being picky eaters or following a current diet trend. As you’re delivering invitations to a holiday gathering, make it a point to ask if guests have any special dietary needs and do your best to accommodate those needs.

Managing gastrointestinal disorders can be challenging, but the payoff in better health is worth the extra time and energy required to follow a proper diet.