It’s not surprising that practically every get-together revolves around meals and snacks. But when you have digestive issues, just the idea of eating out can cause major anxiety, not to mention the internal drama you’ll experience from the food itself.
Expecting digestive trouble when you dine out can actually make it a reality. “When you get worked up, hormones and chemicals that get released in the brain are also released in the gut, where they can interfere with digestion,” said Lara Friedrich, a New York-based licensed clinical psychologist.
Nobody wants to spend more time in the bathroom than at the dinner table with their friends, nor be so distracted by their knotted insides that mealtime conversations barely register. But that doesn’t mean you have to let your digestive issues hijack your good time, either.
Here’s how experts recommend you become one with your finicky stomach and get back to enjoying dinners out with your friends.
1. Check out the menu in advance.
When possible, head to the restaurant’s website before your visit and take a look at the menu to help reduce the anxiety of choosing something when you’re surrounded by others at the table, suggests Diana Gariglio-Clelland, a registered dietitian at Balance One. “Many larger-scale restaurants have a complete allergen guide, which can help identify menu items to stay away from,” she added, especially if your trigger foods typically contain wheat, dairy or soy.
2. Watch your diet all day.
“It’s important to watch what you eat not only the day you’re going out to eat, but the day before as well,” said Marc Bernstein, a gastroenterologist at Florida Digestive Health Specialists. This is because food takes up to eight hours to digest through the stomach and small intestine, and up to another 24 hours to mosey its way through the colon. So if you’re going out on Friday and want to alleviate as many digestive-themed worries as possible, be extra diligent about avoiding trigger foods starting as early as Thursday.
3. Snack it up beforehand.
Going out with friends when you’re starving and then eating a large meal is a surefire way to cause digestive drama, said Clelland, who recommends eating a light snack an hour prior to your dinner date.
4. Scan the menu for specific keywords.
If creeping the menu beforehand isn’t an option, you can usually decode what might trigger your symptoms based on certain keywords used in the descriptions of each menu option. For example, “breaded” or “crunchy” means the meal might contain gluten, while “creamy” menu items might involve dairy.
Words like “battered” and “fried” probably mean the items are high in fat and best to avoid. “Fat takes the longest to empty from the stomach compared to carbs and proteins,” Clelland said. “So if you’re suffering from digestive issues, the last thing you want is a meal that didn’t agree with you sitting in your stomach like a rock for hours.”
Instead, opt for menu items that contain stomach-friendly keywords, like “steamed,” “broiled” or “lightly sautéed,” she suggested.
5. Stick to what’s familiar.
Some dishes may contain ingredients you’re unsure of — when in doubt, choose menu items that can be easily identified, Clelland said. (Think: salmon with brown rice and steamed veggies.) When there’s no question of what’s on your plate, it can help minimize the anxiety that comes with eating hidden ingredients that might not sit well with you.
6. Pace your bites.
Eating slowly and chewing your food thoroughly can keep your digestion from going off the rails in a few ways. Hoovering meals can cause you to swallow more air with each bite, for one (cue bloating and gas). Plus, the larger the chunks of food you consume, the more overtime your insides will have to put in to digest them.
Slo-mo eating also lowers the odds that you’ll stuff yourself to the point of discomfort: “It generally takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you’ve eaten enough,” Bernstein said. Let your body catch up by sipping water between bites, putting your fork down when it’s your turn to talk or taking small breaks as you finish each section of your plate.
7. Be strategic with your drinks.
Avoid drinking too much with your meal (even water), as doing so can lead to bloating and diarrhea. “Instead, get into the habit of drinking water before your meal and save alcoholic drinks for later,” said Erin Judge, a Nashville-based registered dietitian-nutritionist. (Alcohol can irritate the gut and lead to pain and diarrhea, so it’s helpful to keep your intake low.)
When choosing alcoholic drinks, Judge recommends looking for minimal ingredients and avoiding excess sugar or carbonation to minimize gas and bloating. Order a Manhattan, a martini, liquor mixed with a simple fruit juice or a glass of wine.
8. Bring reinforcements.
Boost your confidence going into the meal by using peppermint oil capsules or digestive enzyme supplements to aid in digestion, Judge said. These can help reduce bloating and pain, as well as prevent diarrhea. Best of all, they can be taken before, during or after meals, so you’ll be ready for anything, anytime.
9. Take deep breaths.
“Many times, symptoms from meals are caused more by the anxiety that happens during the meal,” Judge said. “The gut will mimic the brain, so it’s important to keep anxiety at bay when eating out with friends.” The most convenient way to do this is to practice deep, slow breathing throughout the meal, which sends the A-OK to your insides that you’ve got this.
10. Go wild for appetizers.
Instead of ordering one giant plate of something, see if your friends want to go in on a variety of appetizers together. This gives you all the opportunity to enjoy a variety of menu options and takes the pressure off you to finish any one dish. “Not worrying about the food will allow you to focus more on enjoying the moment with those around you,” Judge said. Party on.