The Challenge of Going Out to Eat with Meniere’s Disease

 

With tears streaming down my face, I opened my eyes.

The waves of nausea were starting to pass, but the bathroom was still spinning.

I felt myself shaking and I realized I was shivering on the cold hard tile of the coffee shop bathroom floor. I couldn’t stand up…I could barely move. I fumbled for my phone and texted my fiancée, Megan, to come to the bathroom immediately, that something was wrong.

As soon as Megan opened the door, her look of horror said it all. I had been violently sick, not even making it to the toilet before the succumbing to the nausea. I don’t know why, but at that moment, all I could feel was shame. I didn’t want her to see me like this, but I needed her. She helped me get cleaned up and drove me home. What on Earth was happening to me? It had to be food poisoning.

Earlier that night, Megan and I had gone out to eat at a local steakhouse. We were having a great time and my bacon wrapped filet mignon was delicious.

I had been getting dizzy for several months, but still hadn’t seen a doctor yet. I wouldn’t get my Meniere’s disease diagnosis for several weeks. I started feeling strange after I finished the meal, but shrugged it off and took Megan to the coffee shop for dessert.

It was one of my first real vertigo attacks. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was triggered by the high sodium content of my meal. To this day, excessive sodium is still my biggest trigger, and I know it’s a trigger for many others as well.

Learning to eat out while maintaining my low-sodium diet was important to me. I love a great meal, and I wasn’t going to let Meniere’s disease hold me back from enjoying food with my friends and family. It took a while, but I learned how to navigate these waters. Let’s dive in.

Going out to eat at restaurants:

With Meniere’s disease, going out to eat at restaurants brings a whole new set of challenges. But with a little bit of planning, you can still go out and enjoy yourself.

Most restaurants will happily accommodate for dietary restrictions. But keep in mind, Chefs love to cook with salt and will often use a lot of it. So asking for less salt is generally a bad strategy. It doesn’t mean anything specific. Chances are it will probably still be too much.

Instead, ask if they can prepare your meal without salt, including the sides. If they can’t do it, they will let you know. Usually, it’s either because the meat has been pre-seasoned or the sides have been pre-made.

Some restaurants will have very few options that work for you, but if you are going out with friends, don’t let that hold you back. I’ve never been to a restaurant that didn’t have at least one menu item that could be prepared without salt. I find fish to be a great universal choice. Even if all of the chicken and red meat entrees are pre-seasoned, you’ll find most restaurants prepare fish to order and can make it for you without salt. But when in doubt, order a salad with plain or lightly seasoned grilled chicken and have them bring olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the side.

When you order your food without salt, make sure to let your waiter know it’s important. They are well aware that many people have dietary restrictions and will never be upset with you for making the request. Also,when asked, most servers will be happy to make a recommendation for the best entrees that can be cooked without salt.

I’ve found that big chain restaurants are the hardest to eat at. There are usually very few low sodium options available. But on the flip side, the rise of the “farm to table” restaurant has been a godsend. These restaurants serve delicious, local, fresh and healthy meals. I have several nearby, and at most of them, virtually nothing is off limits for me.

The worst choice, however, that you can make in restaurants is fast food. It’s best to avoid it entirely. Even the salads can have over 1000mg of sodium once you factor in the dressing and meat. In my experience, little good can come from eating fast food when you have Meniere’s disease. The combination of highly processed and unhealthy ingredients, loaded with sodium, is a recipe for disaster. To get better, you need to start eating healthy. There is no room for fast food with this approach.

What to do when traveling:

One of the hardest challenges is finding a way to eat low-sodium meals while traveling. When you are on vacation, you’re probably going to be eating out at restaurants for every meal.

The best way I’ve found to manage this is to use tools like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Google, to research restaurants and menus ahead of time. Once you have picked out the restaurants with the most accommodating menus, you can quickly and easily book reservations with Opentable.

Take the time to plan out your meals before your leave for your trip. It will save you a lot of stress and disappointment, and makes for a much more enjoyable trip. Aside from the initial planning, you’ll also need to be disciplined throughout the entire trip. Enjoy yourself, but make sure to keep your sodium intake in check. Nothing ruins a vacation faster than a vertigo attack.

Pro tip: If you are going to the airport, or going to be out for most of the day, make sure to bring healthy snacks with you. It’s hard to find low-sodium snacks on the go.

Low-sodium at dinner parties:

If you’re going to a dinner party, the strategy is a little bit different. If the host doesn’t already know about your low-sodium diet, your best option is to let them know ahead of time. Most people will be happy to cook a small portion separately without salt for you. But if this isn’t possible, you still have options. In this situation, I typically eat something before I leave, and bring a small snack with me. During the meal, I’ll usually eat a small portion to be polite.

If the dinner party is with family or good friends, ask them to cook all of the food without salt. They may not do it, but never be afraid to ask. I find most people are happy to salt their food at the table before they eat.

Every once in a while you may find yourself in a situation without options; a wedding with a buffet for example. If you can pull a server aside, they may be able to speak to the chef and find out which option has the least sodium. Otherwise, the best you can do is to try to use your sense of taste to figure out the safest choice.

If you overdo it and trigger your symptoms, don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you are extra careful with your sodium intake over the next couple of days, you’ll most likely be ok.

Conclusion:

We are social animals. And though Meniere’s disease can take so much from you, it doesn’t have to take your ability to go out to eat with your friends and family. Learning to manage this safely is empowering. Meniere’s disease can be so isolating. But being able to go out to eat once in a while can make all the difference. It certainly did for me.

Remember, there is always so much hope. Meniere’s disease cannot and will not ever be bigger than your dreams!

  1. You can order no sodium meals when flying (long distances) at the time you purchase your tickets and select your seats. At hotel restaurants, I get together with the chef to discuss my NS meals. They are very accommodating. At restaurants, I’ve also asked that the chef give me any meal of his choice that has no sodium; I am not a picky eater. Of course, these restaurants are not classified as fast food. Most restaurants have their menus online. I select my meal before we go. I also pack my own salad dressing and a ‘good with everything’ sauce.

  2. Since I don’t normally ever add salt to my food, I am aware that many foods often already have a sodium content. But in my search for a good quick “sodium content cheat sheet”, I haven’t found anything that’s pocket friendly. I’ve tried MyFitnessPal, but often the Sodium contents are already missing, so unless I have the item packaging, I can’t be sure. Do you have any tips on where to locate a “sodium cheat sheet” or possibly do you plan to make one (hint hint) =D. I’m newly diagnosed and feel like I’m losing my mind. Right now, I want to see everything I can humanly do to avoid another attack. I appreciate your posts and you sharing your experiences. I’m following on Twitter and Facebook as well. Cheers.

    • Hi Angelica, as of right now I am not aware of any sodium cheat sheet, but that is a great idea! I will definitely try to make something like that at some point soon.

  3. This is a great post – thanks Glenn. I’m finding that of all the things I’ve had to do to keep my life/symptoms in control (I don’t have Meniere’s, but have significant issues with my vestibular system which I’m managing by adopting all the recommended things to do for Meniere’s Disease), the low sodium thing has been the hardest…sodium is everywhere and in such high quantities! Luckily for me, I have small children which severely inhibit my social life and eating out opportunities. But I still find it hard going to other people’s houses and also work functions. I have found that being meticulous about planning what to eat (including pre-eating if we ever do go out) and packing lots of snacks works for best for me. On the up shot, my hard core healthy eating/clean living regime means my family is experiencing great healthy habits at an early age.

    As an aside, I would love to read a post from you about how to manage/survive (and hopefully how you have managed to avoid in the long term) vertigo attacks. Or some tips about managing disequilibrium (you know, the days where you just feel “off balance”). Really enjoying your blog, thanks.

    • Hi Hazmo’s Mama, thanks for the kind words. Its funny you mention how your family has adopted healthy/clean living habits. I was just thinking the same thing the other day. I noticed the same thing with my fiance Megan. At some point I may write an article on managing the actual vertigo attacks as they happen, but in all honesty, that is something I never quite figured out. I have been able to manage my Meniere’s to the point where I haven’t had a vertigo attack in years, but when I was having them, I never quite figured out a way to manage it. I usually ended up just riding it out. As far as general disequilibrium, thats something that I can definitely write about as I still have days where I feel off balance and have learned to manage it fairly well. I will definitely write about it in the future.

  4. Great post and tips. I find (after ten years of ordering special diet requests) that the magic phrase is, “I am on a medically supervised diet and cannot have salt in my food. What can the chef make me that has not been salted or marinated?” They often have unmarinated protein and fresh veggies, which they can grill for me. When in doubt, ask the restaurant manager to supervise your meal, and don’t order off the menu. It’s too easy for them to mess it up when they make 50 of that dish in a day.

  5. Because not everyone is confident making no salt meals for me, I have at times taken my own meal to parties, weddings, and restaurants! With permission from the hosts, of course. I also find providing people with recipes or a list of safe foods has helped them cook no salt meals. There have been only a few exceptions of people who refuse.

  6. I learned a great tip from a close friend who has severe food allergies: she carries in her purse/wallet the list(s) of food she can’t eat. She uses small font & cuts down the paper so she can carry several with her and is never without copies . When the server arrives, before discussing the menu she hands him/her her list so they’re immediately aware of her needs. The servers welcome having this clear reminder of food issues, and I’ve been with her several times when the chef comes to the table to discuss best food choices. We live in Boston where there has been an increased awareness of food issues because one of the city’s top chefs has a young son with severe allergies. He has taken it upon himself not only to serve fresh, healthy foods at his wonderful Asian fusion restaurants, but also to educate the restaurant community to being responsive to food allergies and related problems faced by diners.
    Since the list of my food triggers is mainly around low sodium, I don’t need to carry a list. I find I do fairly well by avoiding fast food and discussing best options with the server or chef. But for those of you who have several foods you must avoid , a printed list will be helpful to you and the restaurant.

  7. Great tips from everyone! I am finally getting through to wait staff! I say that I have a medical condition and it requires low or no sodium.
    Immediately the eyebrow is go up, and the response is so much better! I had a great waiter last weekend who completely. understood as he a gluten allergy . He went out of his way to help me and I had a delicious meal.
    Thanks to you Glenn and your readers !

    .

  8. I just read your article, and it was me right down to the bathroom floor, and today I was finally diagnosed with Ménière’s disease after being in the doctors office and I had a full on attack for 90 minutes. Very scary and now I know I have to fix this issue. Thank you for the insight.

  9. So pleased to have found this blog. Now I don’t feel so alone. Had my first attack 4/2015, very sudden while driving to church, took me an hour to get home. Next 2 months of issues in 8 & 9/2015. Went thru all the tests & was diagnosed at the end of 9/2015. Symptom free for 2 yrs. no one told me about a diet. Etc. I was prescribed Triamaterene/HCTZ & thought that was the end of it. Til 9/2017 & have been struggling since. 2 nights in the hosp even. I can see now how critical the diet is. When I have an attack I am down for most of the day in a severe way.
    New ENT recently prescribed Zofran for those times I can not Stop vomiting. . It is a miracle drug. I have emergency packs ready at my bedside filled with meds, a washcloth, etc.
    I will definitely be using the techniques I’ve learned here for cooking at home & dining out.
    I’m in ins sales & often on the road so this is critical for me. Thank you all

  10. I don’t use salt anyway and have tried reducing coffee and alcohol but not found any effect. I’ve been looking at some meta-studies (Cochrane Research has some interesting stuff on Menieres) and they say that there’s no real scientific evidence that either diuretics or diet has any effect on Menieres. It’s interesting to hear people saying it helps. Did you keep food diaries to identify triggers?

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