By Molly Bookner
Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that prevents an individual from properly digesting gluten, can have unforeseen impacts. One of those, according to a 2022 PubMed research study, the results of which were published on Celiac.org, is a person’s dating life. The study found that nearly 70% of those surveyed reported the disease had “major/moderate” impacts on their romantic lives, resulting in hesitation toward dating and kissing, decreased quality of life, greater social anxiety and riskier eating attitudes and behaviors.
“A real priority for these types of participants is finding someone who’s understanding and compassionate and isn’t going to judge these restrictions,” said Jessica Lebovits, a New York-based nutritionist and one of the study’s lead researchers.
I can attest to the study’s findings firsthand. Thirteen years ago, I was sitting in my kitchen eating a floppy, oil-dripping slice of New York pizza. My mom received a call from my gastroenterologist, who confirmed my endoscopy and biopsy indicated the immune reaction to gluten. While I quickly learned from medical professionals what I could and could not safely eat, no one prepared me for the anxiety-riddled reality of dating on a restrictive diet — and evidently, I’m not the only one.
While this study solely recruited celiac disease patients, experts say the findings likely apply to others following special diets.
“I remember when I was little, like before dating age, hearing about the infamous Peanut Butter Kiss,” said Kansas City’s Grace Guthrie, a 28-year-old Garmin employee with a master’s degree in nutrition. Shannon Meade, a Virginia state health department worker who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia, and has 15 severe food allergies, relates to this allergy-induced anxiety. “I would develop a lot of anxiety about the things that I was eating and places to go where I was eating, and that became a catalyst for a lot of different things that ended my marriage,” she says of her adult-onset allergies.
While many conditions force people to change their diets, Linda Van Horn, professor and chief of the Nutrition Division at Northwestern University’s Department of Preventive Medicine, says allergies have increased across the board. “Your relationship, I believe, could be made or broken on the basis of that individual’s willingness to accommodate (your dietary restriction),” she said.
Look no further for six expert-backed ways to support a romantic partner who is following a special diet.
- Communicate effectively (and early).
Good communication is the foundation of any healthy relationship, and when one partner has a severe dietary restriction, this becomes even more paramount. Once you’ve established what this person can, and cannot, eat, ask, “What does it look like for you to feel good and supported by me?” New York psychotherapist and relationship coach Sanaa Hyder says. It’s also valuable to ask not only what your partner can eat but what they like to eat. “People are like, ‘Oh, I got this gluten-free thing for you,’” Lebovits said, “and you’re like, ‘That’s so sweet, but you didn’t ask me any questions.'”
Once you and your date have established a solid foundation, ask more specific questions, says Sara Casey, a dietitian nutritionist and past President of the Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This could mean asking what to do if you and your partner spontaneously find yourselves at a restaurant that isn’t accommodating or asking if you should even mention the restriction. “Sometimes, the person with the restriction feels like such a burden and doesn’t want to deal with it,” Casey said.
But if your significant other prefers to do most of the legwork, respect these wishes. “I had to take some of the control out of (my dates’) hands,” said Meade, who used to email her potential suitors explaining her various allergies and rules for taking her out. “Even though people have the best intentions of not trying to kill you, it is one of those things that they will try to kill you.”
- Do your research.
Open communication and thoughtful questions are necessary but don’t replace education. “Learn how to read food labels, read packages, menus and things like that to know what words — that might not be super obvious — we need to watch out for,” Casey said. If you’re dating someone with a life-threatening allergy, you need to know how to read ingredient labels and use an EpiPen. “I told (one of my dates), ‘I need you not to forget because something that is a little bit of a forgetful thing for you can really harm me,” Meade said of a date who took her to a place ripe with peanuts.
Furthermore, if your partner’s diet results from a medical condition, like celiac or Crohn’s disease, research that condition on your own to take some pressure off your partner to explain every facet of it to you. Doing so will likely impress them and encourage better conversations.
- Get creative.
Sometimes, planning a date without food is the easiest thing to do, Casey says. “No one has to worry about it or think about it.” More specifically, Lebovits advocates for choosing “activities over meals,” like catching a movie, hiking or wandering around a museum.
If the date coincides with a mealtime, both nutritionists encourage cooking together. “Everyone’s kind of learning together with this, and you can make it personal,” Casey said. But depending on the person’s condition or allergy, you should thoroughly clean kitchen appliances or invest in separate cutting boards, knives, pots, pans and other items to prevent cross-contamination.
- Call ahead.
To ease the burden for your date, call or email restaurants ahead of time, Lebovits says. Then, you should reconfirm safe menu items with a server or chef once you arrive. As Van Horn points out, most restaurants these days accommodate people following special diets, and many even label their menus for common allergens, like gluten, nuts and shellfish. But you do need to know what kinds of questions to ask — specifically regarding cross-contamination — if you take charge of the date, Meade says. “You’ll be surprised how many restaurants will put things on the grill according to space, but not necessarily according to meats or anything like that,” she said.
- Brief your parents.
Meeting a significant other’s parents is an exciting, albeit nerve-wracking, relationship milestone. But for those with dietary restrictions, it can be a source of even greater anxiety. “I feel awkward bringing up my allergy, especially if we’re going over to my partner’s family’s house,” said Guthrie, who prefers that her partner mention it. “(My boyfriend) insists it is a severe allergy, not just a little irritation.” While this certainly applies to home-cooked family meals, it also pertains to eating out.
- Admit when it’s too much.
It’s OK to feel overwhelmed by your partner’s dietary restrictions from time to time and the role you must play in helping to manage them. But it’s unacceptable to ignore these restrictions or pretend to understand them when you do not, as this can put your partner at serious risk.
“At any point, you have the choice to say, ‘Hey, look, this is too much for me; I’m out,’ which is totally valid,” Hyder said. “Or, it could be that you both decide, ‘This relationship is more important to me than the work we have to put in to manage this issue.” Staying together and working as a team to manage the restriction will deepen a couple’s intimacy.