If you have Crohn’s disease, you have to be picky about what you put in your mouth, and going out to eat may be a challenge—particularly if you’re having a flare-up.
“Crohn’s patients have anxiety about eating period, but when you’re not in your own home and bathroom it can cause a lot of anxiety,” says Tamara Duker Freuman, a registered dietitian in New York who specializes in digestive disorders.
However, if you do feel up for eating out, check out these 8 tips to avoid aggravating a flare-up and make the most of your dining experience.
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Study the menu
Search online for the restaurant menu, or if you live in a metropolitan area, check out . And don’t be shy about calling the restaurant. “It’s exactly the same thing that people with food allergies do,” says Martha Rosenau, a registered dietitian and owner of Peak Nutrition, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Many restaurants will modify their dishes—swap heavy cream for low-fat milk in their soup or mashed potatoes, for example—especially if you ask them ahead of time.
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Know your triggers
Although food tolerances are different for everyone, certain food groups are common problems: dairy products, fatty foods, and raw fruits and veggies. (Check out 10 Foods to Avoid if You Have Crohn's.)
On the other hand, sandwiches with lean meat like turkey (and avocado instead of lettuce and tomato), or well-cooked foods like mashed potatoes, rice, and veggies tend to be better tolerated, Rosenau says.
If you're going to a chain restaurant, those that have extensive menus, such as Chili’s or Applebee’s, are more likely to offer something you can eat.
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Explore different cuisines
Certain cuisines tend to be better tolerated than others, Freuman says.
Spicy foods like Indian or Mexican usually do not go down as well as blander meals. Japanese food like miso soup, sticky rice, or salmon can be good choices.
Freuman suggests figuring out what agrees with you. “Eat to your limit of tolerance for quality of life and also for nutrition.”
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Fast food can be OK
The types of food that can be helpful if you’re having a Crohn’s flare are “the opposite of what I consider to be healthy,” Freuman says. Case in point, fast food.
“I usually don’t object to most fast foods,” says Stephen Hanauer, MD, chief of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at University of Chicago. “It gives you the calories you want and it’s tasty.”
However he points out that it’s often high in fat, which may aggravate symptoms. For lighter fare, Subway or Chipotle can be good spots.
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Make it a social occasion
Grabbing lunch or meeting for dinner is often the best chance to catch up with friends and family—and you don’t have to miss out just because you don’t feel well enough to eat.
“Even if you just went and had a hot tea or a glass of juice or chicken broth, you can be with the people you want to be with,” Rosenau says. “Just be there for the sheer enjoyment of other’s company.”
Rosenau recommends carrying some granola or a bottle of Ensure or Boost with you in case you feel hungry, and maybe having a bite beforehand.
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Simple steps like going to a restaurant outside of peak lunch and dinner times can make it less stressful.
See if your friends or family could meet for a late lunch or early dinner. That way, you will probably have more control over how long you spend in the restaurant—and get better service while you’re there.
Another tip that Rosenau says could be helpful and give you peace of mind is to ask for a table near the bathroom. “You’re going to feel more secure.”
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Like with many things in life, having a positive attitude about eating out can go a long way.
“If you think it will make you sick then it just might,” Rosenau says, adding that being relaxed and as stress-free as possible will increase your chances of being able to digest your food.
Another tip to make your food more digestible is to take the time to chew it well.
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Be a regular
It can be a challenge to find restaurants with good food, reasonable prices, and a nice atmosphere. It can be an even taller order if you have dietary restrictions because of Crohn’s disease.
Don’t be afraid to suggest going back to a restaurant that you have enjoyed before. “Just finding the restaurant that works for you is a great strategy,” Rosenau says.
Some restaurants might even show you their appreciation for being a regular with discounts and special dishes.
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