When people first find out about my food allergies, a typical reaction I encounter is a series of questions and statements:
"What do you eat then?"
"Can't you just take medicine so you can eat whatever you want?"
"It's all in your head! Just ignore the reaction."
"I could never restrict myself like that. It sounds too difficult".
Yes, it is difficult, but you tend to learn how to manage your food allergy lifestyle as it can be life-threatening. Food allergies are not just a trend or fab diet - IT IS YOUR LIFE DIET!
When you live with severe food allergies, it is not just about being extra careful about what you put in your body, but also on your body, near your body, and learning all the critical ingredients that are available in our world. For people with severe food allergies, living your daily life can sometimes feel like navigating a minefield of potential hazards.
First, and foremost, what is the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?
Food allergies are caused by our bodies overreacting to something that is typically deemed harmless. To our bodies, that allergen is being identified as an invader. The body then releases a protective response through the immune system, which is what causes the rash, itch, and burning skin pain some suffer from.
Food intolerances are not caused by the immune system, but typically by our gastrointestinal system. Food intolerances are usually dosed dependent, so the more you eat that food causing the issue, the more miserable you will feel.
The severity of an allergic reaction is unpredictable, ranging from mild to severe and even life-threatening stages called anaphylaxis. Symptoms of an allergic reaction may include but are certainly not limited to, hives and rashes, itching, swelling of the face or throat, respiratory distress, lightheadedness, abdominal discomfort, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Why we develop food allergies is still a mystery in the medical field, but genetics and environment do play a role. You are more likely to develop food allergies if you have a family history of food allergies, allergic rhinitis, asthma, or eczema.
Food allergies can be unpredictable and can also change over time. When I was a child, I was allergic to dairy, red meat, pork, shellfish, and selected fruit. As I got older, I grew out of some of those allergies but developed new allergies. Just a couple of years ago, I re-developed some of my childhood allergies and added even more allergens to the list. There is no absolute definition of why this occurs. Many think it is due to body changes, which is where the falsified advice of "just getting pregnant" comes into play.
I have been told plenty of times, by non-medical professionals, to just get pregnant and it will improve my food situation. This is in fact VERY FALSE! Studies show that over a third of pregnant women saw their allergies worsen, while a small few either experienced no change or minor improvements.
Living with a Food Allergy, or multiple food allergies
A food allergy reaction can occur when ingesting even the tiniest amount of the known problematic food. This means people who have allergies have to be very careful. They have to learn to navigate their new lifestyle by learning what brands are safe, what restaurants are safe to dine at, and how to manage food in their day-to-day life.
Just because I have to make all my food and am extremely limited to eating out doesn't make life hard; it makes it safe.
However, people without food allergies find these situations they typically take for granted complicated. I have attended many outings and gathering with food I brought with me. I know it’s kinda weird and awkward, but starving ourselves around food isn't a good plan, and we cannot expect anyone to take our allergies as seriously as we do. Always be prepared with your own little to-go bag of food.
How can you help or be supportive of a family member, friend, or colleague who has food allergies?
First of all, understand that this is not a choice or preferred lifestyle of theirs. I have had people on diets compare themselves to my food allergy restrictions, but then I witness them indulge in foods outside their diet. It is very important to understand that a diet and food allergies are NOT the same. In diets, you are choosing to avoid selected foods while people with food allergies did not choose what foods they cannot eat. People with food allergies also do not get a "cheat" day. If we eat something we shouldn't, it will make us sick or can threaten our life.
My next set of advice is to not take their fears as rudeness. If the person with food allergies in your life feels nervous about trying new places or foods, be considerate and understand that it is not personal.
Here is a list of more helpful tips for managing food allergy friends and family:
Be considerate and contact the person with allergies: let them know what you are making and how you can be of help. Even if they end up bringing their own food, this gesture alone can make them feel more a part of the group and know you care about their health and presence.
Provide allergen-free foods at the party or gathering you are hosting. Not sure what to get? Reach out to the person and find out some of their safe brands. We have a list of options in our shop tab but always double-check with the person directly.
Make sure they also get first dibs on food to avoid cross-contamination.
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Another important way to help is by learning more about food allergies. Since you made it this far, you are already on the right track! If there is someone in your everyday life or family with food allergies, I suggest learning as much as you can about the severity of the allergy, warning signs, and symptoms of a reaction, and what to do in case of a reaction.
Being surrounded by people who understand how to care for you is a real source of comfort and can help you help us food allergy servers feel included. Remember to treat our diagnosis seriously and know we are more than just our diagnosis.