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Cooking for guests with special dietary needs

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Inspired by celebrity chefs, cooking competitions and TV reality shows about dinner parties, you might be feeling the urge to have a go yourself and send out some invitations.

However, what about guests with dietary restrictions? What can you serve, what's off the menu, and how will you avoid any last-minute dinner disasters?

What you need to know

Ask your guests in advance if they have any special dietary needs. These days, you can't host a dinner party without asking about food restrictions. It's good etiquette to ask your guests beforehand whether they have any dietary requirements.

No, you don’t have to cater to each person’s faddy diet or individual likes and dislikes, but not paying the proper attention to serious health conditions, allergies, or food sensitivities has the potential to cause problems, possibly even dangerous ones.

For instance, a gluten-free diet may be necessary because of coeliac disease. Food allergies can be life-threatening, so guests are likely to let you know in advance but it makes sense to ask.

Food allergies - a bad reaction

The British Dietetic Association estimates about 3% of adults suffer from a true food allergy, even though various surveys have found 20 to 30% of people claim to have a food allergy.

Allergies occur when the body’s immune system has a bad reaction to specific proteins found in food. Symptoms of allergy can be eczema, asthma, conjunctivitis or even swelling of the throat, a severe life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

Symptoms are frequently seen within minutes. Common food allergens are cow’s milk, eggs, shellfish, fish, nuts and wheat.

Guests with allergies should always let you know beforehand as the consequences could be disastrous. When you know about an allergy you can plan your menu accordingly.

Food intolerances

A food intolerance is a reaction to a food which occurs when our body has an inability to digest that food successfully.

The most common example is lactose intolerance, where the body doesn't produce sufficient lactase - the enzyme that breaks down lactose, the sugar found within milk.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease caused by an immune reaction to gluten. It affects one in 100 people in the UK, according to Coeliac UK.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Eating gluten causes damage to the lining of the small intestine and may affect other parts of the body too. If a gluten-free diet is not followed, the disease can increase the risk of malnutrition, osteoporosis, bowel cancer and also fertility problems.

If a dinner guest with coeliac disease accidentally ingests gluten, they are likely to be unwell within a few hours. Symptoms can include severe diarrhoea and vomiting and can last several days.

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