Recently I was part of a discussion about what kinds of food should be offered at a conference. It’s tricky to balance needs like “I care deeply about animals and don’t want to see their corpses served at dinner” and “I have medical needs that don’t allow me to be vegetarian,” and I still don’t really know what the community should do.
The argument was made: “Vegans and vegetarians have to take special care to find or bring food they can eat when they go places. Other people can do that too.”
But a medically-required diet is not the same as a chosen diet (e.g. kosher, vegetarian). After watching friends and family members go through medical problems, I see this pretty differently than I did a few years ago. Some things that may go along with medically-required diet:
- The medical problem itself, with accompanying pain, fatigue, and other disruptions.
- The part-time or full-time job that is handling a serious health condition: doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, haranguing your insurance company, keeping prescriptions filled, taking a bewildering array of medications at the right time each day, injecting yourself with medications.
- Change in body image due to surgical scars, wearing a medication pump, etc.
- Loss of ability to do things you enjoy (like swimming at the beach, because your medication makes you burn so easily, or dancing, because of fatigue and pain).
- Loss of partners who could not handle your medical situation.
- Loss of ability to conceive, bear, or care for a child.
- Loss of job opportunities because of health needs or taking time off of work to care for your health.
- Knowledge that your lifespan may be cut short by your illness and/or treatments for the illness.
For someone who has chosen a particular diet, not being able to find food you can eat can be painful: it may mean your friends don’t respect your choices or your moral system. But it is different than having dietary restrictions you didn’t choose, and which are associated with a lot of other painful things happening in your life.
I have been a cook who rolled my eyes at dietary requests the kitchen recieved. I regret this now, because having to cook for someone who can’t eat gluten, corn, or any sugars is nowhere near as annoying as being a person who can’t eat gluten, corn, or any sugars. Even when a dietary need is pretty clearly psychological (e.g. able to eat one shape of pasta but not other shapes), arguing with people about this is really never helpful.