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It is my firmest belief that a successful life is not about risk avoidance, it’s about risk management, the distinction here being one of conscious choice. A life spent protecting one’s self from risk is a life unlived, but a life spent making conscious and intelligent decisions about taking acceptable risks is a life of fulfillment, satisfaction, and fun.

Take, for example, my love of riding motorcycles. Riders of motorcycles are, statistically speaking, up to 5 times more likely to die while operating one than a driver is while driving a car, not to speak of the dramatically increased risk of traumatic injury. Yes, motorcycle riding is dangerous. There can be little reasonable argument about this. Nor can anyone reasonably argue with the amount of satisfaction I derive from it. So, rather than deny myself that pleasure merely because of the risk involved, instead I work actively to mitigate as much of the risk as possible. I wear full protective gear whenever I ride, I wear bright colors and retro-reflective materials, I take (and teach!) frequent classes to become the most skillful rider I can be, I focus huge amounts of my attention on the vehicles and traffic patterns around me so that I can be ready when the unexpected occurs. I actively work to make riding as safe as possible, reducing the level of risk to one that is acceptable to me and to my loved ones.

It is this type of work to balance risk and reward that I bring to most everything in life, including my diet and my health.

I’ve been wanting to write about SCD and dining out for a while now. Not merely a restaurant review, but something higher-level than that… more meta if you will. In considering how to approach it, it occurred to me that the way I do it is identical to how I ride my motorcycle: with a process of consciously weighing the risks and rewards, and using good choices to reduce the risk as much as reasonably possible.

When considering dining out, it’s important to think about this risk, not because you should talk yourself out of it, but because until one acknowledges a risk, one cannot do anything to mitigate it. So let’s talk a little bit about the risk that you’ll encounter as an SCD-er trying to eat out.

It seems to me that most risk falls into two categories: ingredients, and contamination.

Of the two, ingredient risk is the more easily managed. This management consists of reading carefully, asking thoughtful questions, and having a finely tuned instinct. Reading carefully is an obvious necessity. Read every single word on the menu… not just the descriptions, but also any footnotes. Footnotes often contain useful information for those with food sensitivities.

Thoughtful questions can be a challenge… not just a challenge to ask, but a challenge to come up with in the first place. You and I understand SCD and what it’s all about, but there’s a 99% chance that your server will not, so it’s not sufficient merely ask if a dish contains grains, sugars, or starches. You’ll need to get more detailed than that. You may get some eye-rolling from your server, but that’s just part of the game. Ordering a cut of meat? Ask if it’s marinated or brined. If it is, ask what was in the marinade. If they don’t mention anything that raises a red flag, then ask more… Does it contain any sugar? Worchestershire sauce? I could probably list hundreds of questions here, but that’s not going to help you. What’s going to help is to remember that YOU ARE THE CUSTOMER, and that your server is there to help. If they aren’t willing to help, if they aren’t willing to go ask the chef, then you have a choice: Take your money elsewhere, or take your chances with the food. I can tell you that I have made both of those choices at different times.

This is where your instinct comes in to play. What do you know about the place? Have they earned your trust? What do you know about preparing the types of foods that are served there? In a traditional preparation of those foods, what illegal ingredients are usually used? Knowing these kinds of things helps to you ask good questions, and also helps you to assess the reliability of the answers you receive.

The other hazard when dining out is contamination. This occurs when you have a dish that is completely legal, but it touches other food that is not, or a surface on which illegal food has been prepared. This risk is much more difficult to manage, but on the other hand, generally results in only trace amounts of the illegal substance being in your food. Managing this risk is difficult enough that I choose not to worry about it. I have a resilient enough system that I can deal with such minimal exposure without consequence. Many do not, and for them, it’s important to use strong words when talking to the server… words like ‘allergy’ and ‘reaction’, and to request that your food be prepared and cooked on freshly cleaned surfaces. Having said that, if you are that sensitive, you may find that the best way to manage the risk of eating out is not to eat out.

Eating out while remaining legal is an exercise in risk management. You cannot eliminate the risk, you can only reduce it. This should not serve as discouragement for you, however… instead, it’s an empowering realization that allows you to go yet another step forward in making conscious choices in how you choose to manage your health.