Why People Claim to Have Food Allergies

Four percent of Americans have food allergies. Yet, research shows that as many as 20 percent of people claim to have a food allergy. Therefore, a lot of people are telling people they have a food allergy when they don't actually have such an allergy.

Why would people do that? Generally speaking, most people aren't out-and-out lying maliciously when they say (erroneously) that they have a food allergy. They might instead have a food sensitivity, which involves a different set of symptoms. They might be trying to lose weight, but not want to admit it. And, they may have a serious medical condition, such as anorexia nervosa.

Woman looking at food in deli case
Simone Becchetti / Getty Images

True Food Allergy vs. Sensitivity

Real food allergies have a set of symptoms, including hives, swelling, and potentially anaphylaxis, and are diagnosed by a healthcare provider (usually a doctor who specializes in allergies) through testing. Real food allergies cause an immune system reaction whenever the food allergen is ingested.

Some people believe they have a food allergy when what they have is food intolerance or a food sensitivity. Lactose intolerance is one such reaction, involving digestive alterations like diarrhea or excessive gas upon eating a food containing milk. While diarrhea is certainly an embarrassing side effect of lactose intolerance, it is not life-threatening nor does it require medication to help ease or eliminate the symptoms. It does, however, require avoidance of foods containing milk.

Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are two more conditions that people often mistake for food allergies. In those conditions, people develop digestive and other symptoms when they consume foods that contain the protein gluten, found in the grains wheat, barley, and rye. However, the symptoms are different from those of a true food allergy.

Although lactose intolerance, celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity are not true food allergies, many people refer to the conditions as "allergies" because it helps family members, friends, and restaurant staff members to understand that they must avoid food containing those ingredients.

Feigning Allergies to Lose Weight

Some people use a blanket excuse of "food allergies" to avoid eating in social situations when they're trying to lose weight. This provides them with a more socially acceptable reason to avoid eating (since people will take a supposed medical condition more seriously than a weight-loss diet) and may help to reduce pressure on them to eat fattening foods.

However, this poses problems for restaurant personnel or for family or friends hosting a social gathering. A real food allergy puts everyone on alert, especially the wait staff at a restaurant or a host at a party. If you’re at a restaurant or at a party and you don’t like what is served or are avoiding certain foods, telling people you're actually allergic to the food may seem like an easy way out, but in reality, it makes others work hard to accommodate you and your special diet.

Therefore, if you really just don't want to eat, tell people that and stick to it, rather than lying and saying you have a food allergy.

Eating Disorders as Food Allergies

Becoming too restrictive with your diet can be a red flag for an eating disorder. For the individual who has an eating disorder, claiming a food allergy may tap into the structure and rigid control that is inherent to an eating disorder.

If you have a “good” food/ “bad” food mentality, then those foods that fall into the category of “bad,” may elicit efforts to avoid them. How do you know if your relationship with food is unhealthy? Having many food rules such as "no sugar," "no carbs," or "no food additives" may be one sign of a disrupted food relationship.

If you can’t be trusted around food, or if you routinely berate yourself after you indulge, you may be showing signs of an eating disorder. Other signs include a desperate desire to be thin, controlling every morsel of food you eat, and over-exercising.

A Word From Verywell

Don't mistake overindulgence for a food intolerance or sensitivity or even for a food allergy. If you feel sluggish after eating ice cream or a big pasta dinner, it's possible that you simply ate too much. Yet, some people will think they are having an adverse reaction to food, rather than think they overdid it.

Those with real food allergies face real consequences each day their conditions go undiagnosed, untreated, or aren't taken seriously. If you don’t have a true food allergy, it’s disingenuous to claim one, and it hurts those who truly do have one as it may make others think that food allergies aren’t a big deal.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Barbaro MR, Cremon C, Stanghellini V, Barbara G. Recent advances in understanding non-celiac gluten sensitivity. F1000Res. 2018;7. doi:10.12688/f1000research.15849.1

By Jill Castle, MS, RD
Jill Castle, MS, RD, is a childhood nutrition expert, published book author, consultant, and public speaker who helps parents nourish healthy kids.