What are food allergies?
Suffering from food allergies? You’re not alone. The incidence of food allergies has significantly increased over the past decade. In the United States alone, an estimated 32 million Americans suffer from a food allergy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified eight major food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soybean, fish and shellfish. You may recognize warning labels for these eight food allergens on various food products.
However, there are over 170 foods identified as allergy-triggering foods! While some food allergens can cause mild to moderate symptoms, such as digestive issues and rashes, others can cause life-threatening reactions that require immediate treatment. According to the Food Allergy Research & Education Organization (FARE), roughly 200,000 Americans require emergency medical care due to food allergic reactions each year. Statistics show an individual gets sent to the emergency room every 3 minutes. Think about how many people were sent to the emergency room just while reading this article.
Is there a cure?
So what is the cure you ask? Unfortunately, there is none. The only preventative method is strict avoidance of the food allergen. If an individual is at risk of anaphylaxis due to their food allergy, epinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter, is used to counteract the effects. You probably heard of the word “EpiPen” and likely know someone who carries it, or forgets to. An EpiPen is a syringe containing epinephrine. Risk of fatal reaction increases if it is not administered in a timely manner.
With no cure (yet), food allergies can significantly impact one’s quality of life. Studies have shown that individuals with food allergies report higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to individuals without food allergies. Fear of peer judgment, social isolation, embarrassment, and feeling “different” often come hand in hand with having a food allergy. These emotional risk factors have been shown to increase risk-taking behaviors in individuals with food allergies, especially in a social setting. One study found that individuals with food allergies reported intentionally consuming food allergens and disregarding the consequences when at social events that involve food. Additionally, approximately one in three children reports being bullied because of their food allergy.
So how does one navigate life with a food allergy? Here are some tips and tricks to help.
Understand Your Food Allergy
Educate yourself on the known and hidden sources of your food allergen. You can keep a list of them on your phone if you ever need to refer to it. It can come in handy when at the grocery store or browsing the menu at a restaurant.
Become an expert in reading and interpreting food labels. Those sneaky hidden sources in food labels can be tricky to decipher, especially if your food allergen isn’t one of the eight major ones identified by the FDA. Be aware that ingredients of certain food products can also sometimes change, so always make sure to quickly review any packaged foods that you plan to enjoy.
If you are sensitive to cross-contamination, make sure to avoid sharing cooking equipment. For example, if you have celiac disease and cannot consume gluten, but live in a household where others do, invest in your own toaster. You can label it “the gluten-free toaster” so others know not to use it. However, eating away from home can be a challenge, especially when sensitive to cross-contamination. This brings us to our next point below.
Stand Up For Your Food Allergy
We know it’s tough and can be tiring to be so rigorous in avoiding your food allergen. It can feel isolating to be viewed as the “food allergy” person at the table. But remember, your body and health come first. Practicing self-confidence around your food allergen can make it easier to advocate for yourself and your food allergy.
Don’t be afraid to do your own due diligence when planning to go out to a restaurant or eat at someone’s place. For example, you can always call the restaurant ahead of time to inquire about the foods you are interested in eating, and if they are safe for you to eat. If going to a friend’s or family’s place, remind them of your food allergy and offer any help they may need to make your meal safe from cross-contamination or hidden food allergen sources. You can even offer to bring some hors d’oeuvres that you know you’ll be able to eat and that everyone can enjoy!
If people have questions about your food allergy, answer them! Educating others about your food allergies and the potential effects they can have will not only help prevent you from food allergic reactions, but will also foster better understanding from your peers. This way, you feel less “different”.
Build Your Support System
It’s always a good thing to surround yourself with people you can trust and feel comfortable with. Creating your own support system will give you a safe space to be yourself, provide that extra boost of confidence, or lend an empathic hand when needed.
You can build your support system in many ways. Close friends, family, food allergy support groups (online or in person), and of course, a dietitian.
Your dietitian can help you develop a nutrition plan for adequate growth and optimal health, making sure you receive all essential nutrients in the context of your diet restrictions. If you are unable to meet all your nutrition needs via diet, your dietitian may also recommend nutrient supplements. Dietitians can provide guidance on safe food allergen elimination, individualized meals plans, and tools on how to navigate social activities that involve food.
Bring your ammo, and by ammo, we mean snacks on the go. Always have emergency bars or snacks that fit into your diet, and your bag. If you find yourself in a situation where there isn’t much you can eat, you’ll be prepared. Your dietitian can help you find nutrient-packed snack ideas or food products that work for you.
Meal prep, meal prep, meal prep. Sounds exhausting, we know, but this can truly make your life easier. Dedicate 1-3 hours to developing your meal plan for the week. Grab your food items at the grocery store, and prep some key foods for you to have ready in your fridge. Cafeteria at work doesn’t offer anything appropriate within your food restrictions? Or nervous about what’s actually in the food? Bring one of your pre-made meals for lunch. You can even bring some pre-made meals to parties or other social events, just in case they don’t offer any food-safe options. Learn how to meal prep here.
Food restrictions can lead to creative recipes in the kitchen. It forces you to think outside the box and explore new recipes and food combinations. Instead of focusing on the foods you can’t eat, find ones that you can add to your diet. Get inspired by other allergy-friendly food blogs to craft your own delicious creations.
Living with food allergies can be challenging, but they do not define you. Be confident in prioritizing your health and exploring your own food journey. We hope these trips and tricks help you along the way.