Should Unhealthy Foods Become a New Food Allergy?

After we made our reservations at the bed and breakfast in a charming New England town, we received, along with our confirmation email, a form asking us to list any food allergies or food restrictions. The inn served a full breakfast, indeed, the gourmet quality of the breakfast was mentioned in several reviews and the couple running the inn obviously wanted to make sure that the culinary needs of their guests were noted.  We couldn’t think of any except the unthinkable, i.e. a breakfast without caffeine, and assumed that we would be able to eat the foods traditionally served at inn breakfasts: an assortment of bread, pastries, yogurt, fruit, cereals, and a hot egg-cheese casserole. We made a mistake. We should have said something about our food needs.

Her breakfast menu, the morning we were there, offered foods incompatible with what we normally eat for breakfast (or indeed ever.) The first course was a nectarine poached in syrup, coated with chopped nuts and seated on a bed of sour cream. The main course was a large slice of cheese quiche and a sour cream biscuit. The quiche was mainly egg, cream, butter and a great deal of cheese. The biscuit seemed to be mostly butter, sour cream and flour. To someone accustomed to eating a high-fiber cereal, fat-free milk and fruit, or yogurt and whole grain toast early in the morning, the inn’s breakfast was too high in fat to eat. But it was embarrassing. Other guests at the long table at which we all sat cleaned their plates. How to explain our nearly full ones? The face-saving one was that we usually were not very hungry in the morning.

Perhaps it was our fault. Perhaps we should have mentioned that for a variety of reasons, including a history of serious heart disease in our families, we tried to limit our saturated fat consumption. Or that we were going to be spending many hours that day driving home and would feel more comfortable eating lightly rather than digesting several ounces of almost pure fat. But we said nothing. We overheard the innkeeper explain to another guest that she liked to serve everyone the same food because it enabled her to control her food supplies and decreased waste. “If I put out a variety of foods like yogurt or fruit,” she said, “then I may have to throw some food away and I hate doing that.”  So we did not even ask if there was anything else to eat. We assumed that she was not prepared to offer anything but her own menu to her guests. Sadly, our food was wasted along with the labor she put into making it.

Could we have prevented this? She did ask us to list our food allergies and restrictions, but where would we have mentioned our desire to eat a low-fat, high-fiber, and vitamin-containing meal for breakfast?  Obviously we were not allergic to cheese, butter, eggs, and sugar, and it would have been dishonest to state that we suffered from diseases that prohibited eating these foods. (We simply did not want to develop these conditions.)

However, given the prevalence of medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal disorders that would benefit from a healthy diet, shouldn’t the potential guest be asked whether he or she preferred to limit consumption of high-salt, high-fat, and high-sugar foods? Shouldn’t the desire to serve a gourmet breakfast that featured high-fat ingredients be balanced against offering healthier options to the guests?  Or at the very least, offer them alternatives?

Our experience was not unique. Even with the greater sensitivity of the country as a whole to the restrictive food needs such as gluten, lactose, saturated fats, peanuts and other nuts, and all animal products of many people, it is still possible to be unable to find something to eat while traveling. A friend from India told us that when he arrived as a student in this country about 30 years ago and told people he was a vegetarian, they thought he was talking about what political party he belong to rather than his food restrictions. Fortunately, everyone now knows what a vegetarian is, although some still are not sure whether that is the same as being vegan (it is not).

Could the situation have had a different resolution? Should the website featuring the inn mention that gourmet breakfasts will be served, but those who need to restrict calories or fat or both should bring their own food?  Should we have mentioned before we arrived that we would be driving for hours that day and would have preferred eating lightly?  Was it her responsibility to make sure that her guests ate healthily or consumed calories in keeping with their day’s activities or their weight?  There are laws requiring inns to have sprinklers and well- marked fire exits in order to protect guests from fire, but so far no rules exist to protect guests from weight gain.

The answer in part is that we were guests, albeit paying ones, in her home.  The inn was not near any stores or restaurants so we were dependent on what came out of her kitchen for breakfast unless we wanted to travel for many miles to find a restaurant open in the morning.  If we had stated before we arrived that we wished to avoid unhealthy foods, this might have led to some confusion because there is so much disagreement among the public about what is healthy: bacon fat or olive oil, milk from cows, soybeans or almonds, egg yolks or tofu? So the solution (which other inns use) is to offer a variety of breakfast foods to which the guests could help themselves—at least to a couple of protein bars—even if it means throwing away an uneaten container of yogurt or an overly ripe banana.

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