The Real Difference Between Dietary Choices and Dietary Needs

Tracy-Struckrath

As the controversy and, let's face it, confusion rages on around the world, here's an easy primer on the why's and woes of dietary choices vs. dietary needs. 

Let's begin with an actual disease, celiac disease.
Celiac disease isn't an allergy to gluten, as many people often mistake. It is an actual autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley) causes damage to the small intestine. An estimated 1 in every 100 people worldwide has celiac, and most are undiagnosed. A diagnosis will ensure the opportunity for access to testing and any treatments to help prevent potential long-term health effects of the disease, such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, intestinal cancer and more. Those with celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis. While there is no cure, maintaining a gluten-free diet is critical to avoid malnutrition and other results, such as the surgical removal of damaged intestines. 
 
What about food allergies?
"A true food allergy causes an immune-system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, an allergic reaction to a food can be severe or life-threatening," according to James T. Li, M.D., PhD., chair of the division of allergic diseases in the department of internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a board-certified asthma and allergy specialist
 
Currently, there are eight foods identified by the U.S. government as the "Big Eight" food allergens. These account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States. They include milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. Labeling is required for these foods in the U.S. and several other countries. Changing consumer tastes for ethnic foods have led to legislation to add sesame to the list. Unfortunately, there is no treatment or cure for food allergies, so the only safeguard against adverse reactions is to follow strict avoidance diets.   
 
What is a food intolerance?
A food intolerance, also called a nonallergic food hypersensitivity, is a difficulty digesting certain foods. It is different from a food allergy, which triggers the immune system and whose symptoms can occur immediately. The onset of food intolerance symptoms take longer, typically several hours after ingestion. In some cases, symptoms can take 48 hours to emerge. While milk, for example, is the number-one food allergy in the world, people who are lactose intolerant are not allergic to milk. Lactose intolerance means the person does not have enough lactase, an enzyme needed for milk digestion and absorption of nutrients. A milk allergy will result in an immune system response, while the response of a lactose intolerant person will be symptoms such as stomachache, bloating, diarrhea and gas. 
 
What are religious dietary restrictions?
No two religions are alike when it comes to religious dietary customs, but there is a great deal of commonality. Ideology about diet, health and spiritual wellness vary across texts and according to differing rationale, practices and disciplines. Major world religions with food practices and restrictions include Buddhism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Protestantism, Rastafarianism, Roman Catholicism and Seventh Day Adventist. Religious dietary restrictions can also include adjusted or abbreviated dietary practices on holy days. Also, fasting (going without food and/or drink for a specified time) is a common tenet of faith by many religions.
 
Religious beliefs expressed as food customs often have their origins in early concerns for health and safety. Other doctrines bring attention to specific eating practices, such as gluttonous overeating, the use of strong drinks, stimulants and respect for life, the latter leading to vegetarianism or the avoidance of specific meats.  
 
What about lifestyle, nutrition and dietary choices?
While some dietary restrictions are mandated by one's body or by religious organizations, there are plenty of individuals who make strict dietary choices based on their approach to health consciousness, their values or their personal philosophy. Concerns for animal welfare, the environment and wholesome nutrition drive many of these decisions. Some examples include veganism, vegetarianism, pescetarian, flexitarian, climatarian, raw, paleo, gluten-free, clean eating and macrobiotic. 
 
No matter what the inspiration for a custom eater, as meeting professionals it is important that we understand all dietary practices. Most importantly, we need to learn how to meet and respect the needs of all guests. As individuals from around the world travel to attend events on a global level, we have the opportunity to reach a broader client base or the possibility of alienating 38 percent of our guests. Ultimately, we have a duty of care to our guest's safety.
 
Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, has been a meeting professional for 27 years. After being diagnosed with food allergies, she became an author, speaker, trainer, consultant and soon-to-be certified ADA Coordinator, who works with individuals and organizations worldwide to create safer and more inclusive food-and-beverage environments. She has presented to audiences on five continents and believes that F&B provides a powerful opportunity to engage audiences on multiple levels, including risk, well-being, culture and the bottom line. Stuckrath has been chosen of M&C's Top 25 Women in the Meetings Industry.