Expert Series: How people can navigate food sensitivities in the 'new normal'

Posted: August 18, 2021 | Word Count: 1,209

By Ellie O’Brien, cofounder of Square Root Life

When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, I had to immediately change everything I was doing regarding food. This meant switching to an entirely gluten-free diet and making lots of changes to my kitchen, like replacing my toaster. But one of the hardest parts became eating meals with people outside the close circle of loved ones who knew and understood my condition.

Food is a primary way humans connect with one another. We gather over meals, sharing food in times of both celebration and sadness. Everyone around the world appreciates the warmth and fellowship of a communal meal. But for people with food allergies, food can become isolating, as I found in the early days of my diagnosis. Eating in restaurants and other peoples’ homes meant not only putting my health at risk, but there were the inevitable insensitive comments, lack of empathy and pressure to “just eat one; it can’t hurt you” that people with food allergies are so familiar with.

For people with food allergies, one of the strange benefits of social distancing during COVID was that eating at home meant we could control the ingredients in our food and how they were prepared with no risk of cross-contamination. Now, as people start to socialize again, many of us with food allergies and sensitivities such as celiac disease would love to get out and share meals with friends. But after over a year of eating at home and being in control of what we put into our bodies, we’re back to putting our health at the mercy of those who may not understand the seriousness of our diseases. Although we would love to get out and share meals with friends, to connect over food as humans do, we face unique challenges that can create an extra layer of anxiety during this time.

Navigating food allergies and sensitivities while socializing

For people like me who have celiac disease, or for the millions with other food allergies or sensitivities, communal eating is a situation that can be life-threatening. The good news is that more people are becoming aware of these conditions among their friends and family. And more products — even sections of grocery stores and restaurant menus — are being developed to help people find food that’s safe and healthy for them to eat. Here are some tips for navigating the return to communal eating:

  1. Repeat, repeat, repeat. As often as you tell people why you can’t join the potluck or picnic without bringing your own food, they may not understand. You may have to repeat yourself over and over again to loved ones until the message finally gets through.

  2. Make comparisons they’ll understand. Comparing your condition to those with severe peanut allergy may be helpful, as most people have heard of someone who reacted badly to a trace amount of nuts.

  3. Bring your own food. Until your loved ones really get it, you may need to pack yourself a separate meal for gatherings. The good news is, your loved ones might actually understand how serious the situation is if they see you doing this.

  4. But bring enough to share! There’s no need for you to hide away in the corner with your paper sack while everyone else sits at the grown-up table. Bring enough food that you know you’ll have enough for yourself, with lots extra to share with others.

  5. Show them that healthy food can be delicious. It can be a challenge to find allergen-free foods that don’t taste (or feel) like a compromise. But they are out there. In fact, that was the inspiration behind the company my husband Pat and I founded: Square Root Life.

Creating gluten-free products delicious enough for everyone

As an engineer by training, my tendency when I have a problem is to come up with a solution to solve it. The idea behind our company is an elegant solution to the problem of gluten allergies — making delicious products made from real food, in its most basic form, to give people with gluten intolerance a product they’d love to share with anyone. The ingredients for our Nutnolas and Nutnola Butters include only nuts, seeds, dried fruit and spices. In other words, real food you can feel good about putting in your body — and feel great about sharing with friends and family. We also offer gluten-free recipes to make with our products on our website and Instagram.

Products from Square Root Life are healthy alternatives to processed foods. While they are created to be allergy-friendly (and are Certified gluten free!), you don’t have to be following a gluten-free, keto, paleo or other special diet to enjoy them. Granola shouldn’t be lumpy, clumpy, runny or gravelly — so the nuts and seeds used in our Nutnola have a crunchy texture that’s delicious straight out of the bag, or as part of one of our recipes. Our Nutnola Butters contain several types of nuts and seeds to provide an array of healthy fats, proteins and flavors for a wholesome, satisfying texture.

Food that brings people together

For too long, the experience of people with food allergies has been one of deprivation and giving up foods they love. That’s unacceptable. People with food allergies shouldn’t have to compromise. They deserve access to food that is abundantly delicious while meeting their dietary needs. Creating these foods has made a huge difference in my life, giving me delicious options I couldn’t find anywhere else. As we return to gathering with family and friends, I hope we can all find food that safely nourishes and delights.

What is celiac disease?

While people are becoming increasingly aware of food sensitivities, there is still confusion around celiac disease. Simply put, celiac disease is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. Eating gluten causes an immune reaction which damages the lining of the small intestine. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, constipation, fatigue, weight loss and anemia. Symptoms can vary a great deal both from person to person and also from adults to children. While there is no cure, avoiding foods with gluten is the only way to manage the condition and prevent its most severe complications.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale. It’s hard to determine which products contain gluten, as gluten is hidden in many items besides bread. Wheat products also have many names, including durum, semolina, spelt, graham, farro and farina. Gluten can be found in unlikely products, such as soy sauce, salad dressing, licorice, beer and even some medications. You need to learn how to read food labels carefully. provides information about what people who have it can and can’t eat.

Husband-wife team Ellie and Pat O’Brien cofounded Square Root, a health foods business based in Chicago selling certified gluten-free, grain-free, vegan and paleo snacks. Ellie O’Brien is an engineer who uses her problem-solving skills to create solutions to her own food allergy challenges, developing recipes as well as content for their website and social media. Pat O’Brien works on new business development, sales and quality control with co-manufacturers and brand merchandise.

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