Coping With a Food Allergy

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Life with a food allergy often involves a lot of planning, diligence, awareness, and—as some see it—sacrifice. In addition to being challenged by the practical tasks of knowing the names of offending ingredients and reading food labels, you may experience the emotional impact of adjusting to your condition as well.

There's no doubt that you have to make some changes when you have a food allergy, but there are strategies that can help ease the way.

Emotional

It is not uncommon to experience a sense of loss after being diagnosed with a food allergy, especially if you or your child have to give up foods that have been diet staples (or personal favorites).

It's also common for people to experience sadness after a diagnosis because there is a loss of normalcy as well. While other parents are stopping for ice cream or going out for pizza after a ball game, you have to make sure it is safe first. Suddenly, every time you are around food, it becomes a source of anxiety and stress, with worries about whether or not what is going into your or your child's mouth is safe. The nagging fear that one wrong bite could result in a life-threatening allergic reaction is a common struggle for people with food allergies.

And, because so much of life revolves around food such as at birthday parties, weddings, work conferences, retirement parties, family reunions, and more, having a food allergy in the midst of these celebrations can feel frustrating, burdensome, and even lonely.

Manage Your Stress

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, studies of people living with food allergies consistently show that they have high levels of stress. While it is perfectly normal to feel this way as you transition into your new lifestyle, having a food allergy does not have to be all-consuming.

If you do find yourself overwhelmed, do whatever you can to simplify other aspects of your life for a while and find sympathetic friends or family members to talk to. Beginning a stress management program or learning relaxation techniques can greatly enhance your overall mental health, too.

Learning how to manage a food allergy in the midst of living your life is the ultimate goal. It should be a part of your day, not something that defines you.

Keep Fear in Check

While it is critical that you are vigilant about protecting yourself or your child from a food allergy reaction, there is such a thing as an unhealthy level of worry. Do your best to prevent exposure, but also try not to focus on worst-case scenarios. Have more realistic thoughts about how to be prepared in different situations, should they arise. Even people who are most diligent about their food allergies have reactions.

Gradually do things that you are fearful of—like eating out—to learn how to make them work, and to challenge your thoughts about what you can and cannot do.

If it is your child with a food allergy, pay close attention to how you communicate about his allergy, both in public and private. Speak in a normal tone of voice and in an age-appropriate fashion (think about how you would instruct him to safely cross the street).

Be Empowered

Learning as much as you can about food allergies goes a long way in feeling confident about living with food allergies. Read as much as you can on the subject and ask your doctor any questions you may have.

If your child has the food allergy, look for opportunities to teach and empower her. For instance, while grocery shopping, ask her to read the labels of a few items and let you know if they are safe. Then, be sure to compliment her efforts.

On the Bright Side

Research shows that kids with food allergies tend to be more empathetic and more responsible than their peers. Additionally, kids who have been diagnosed with food allergies also tend to have an advantage later in life because they have learned to deal with adversity at a young age.

Physical

Some allergies don't restrict your diet too severely. If you and your child eat almost no seafood and are diagnosed with a shellfish allergy, for example, you may be able to adjust to dietary and lifestyle changes relatively easily, and without much angst.

Other food allergies, though, require nearly complete overhauls of your daily eating habits, especially allergies to milk, eggs, common grains, and nuts.

In addition to your allergist, a nutritionist or dietitian with expertise in food allergy issues can be invaluable in helping you adjust to your new diet.

This person can help ensure that your diet is nutritionally sound and suggest safe foods you may not have considered.

Social

Many times, the first reaction in dealing with food allergies is to avoid all social situations where there will be food served, especially if the food allergic person is your young child.

Do your best to push through these situations by:

  • Educating others: Continue to explain food allergies to those around you. Be clear about why you can't eat certain foods (and what will happen if you do).
  • Offering your help: After politely explaining your restrictions to a dinner host, ask how you can help so that they do not feel burdened or worried about your dietary needs.
  • Preparing ahead of time: If you can't guarantee that the food will be safe for you, consider bringing something to eat from home, rather than missing out on an event. Store "safe" cupcakes in the freezer to bring to kids' birthday parties, for example.
  • Changing it up: You and your friends may go to the same restaurant each month because that's what you've always done. Consider suggesting a new get-together that doesn't revolve around food, like bowling, visiting a park, or going to a concert.

Support groups, whether online or in-person, are one way to discuss social challenges that arise with food allergies. Those who have been living with a food allergy for some time may have some personal tips worth hearing. Your allergist or a local hospital may be able to refer you to one.

If you simply must decline an invitation because the event will put you or your child at unavoidable risk—for example, dinner is at a crab house and you're allergic to shellfish—it's perfectly OK (and advisable) to do so. Offer to catch up with friends or family later on. Most people will be sensitive to your needs once you explain your situation.

Practical

There are a number of things you can do to make life with food allergies more manageable.

Eating Out

Eating at restaurants soon after an allergy diagnosis can feel daunting, so start slow. Stick to one or two restaurants whose chefs or owners are approachable and willing to work with you, and then expand your horizons.

Many chain restaurants include information for common food allergens along with MSG, sulfites, and gluten on their websites, so you can do some research in advance. It's also worth giving a call to the restaurant to discuss your needs.

Once dining, if you aren't entirely comfortable that your waiter or chef is taking your concerns seriously, leave (or just order a drink instead of food).

Do not forget to bring any emergency medication prescribed by your doctor whenever you're away from home. Make a mental note to check if you change purses or jackets for a night out.

In Your Kitchen

While it's typically safer to eat what you make at home, there are some considerations to keep in mind.

Clean House

As soon as you can, remove every item you no longer can eat from your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Keeping unsafe items out of your home will remove temptation and reduce opportunities for allergen exposure.

In addition:

  • Clean all your cooking utensils and tools.
  • Set up separate food preparation areas to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Keep at least some pans and utensils separate for your food.
  • Replace any scratched items, like cutting boards, which can harbor tiny bits of allergenic food.

Stock Up on Substitutions

You may not necessarily have to give up your favorite dishes when you're diagnosed with an allergy as an adult, but you will need to learn to make substitutions to safely use some recipes (if they aren't developed with your particular food allergy in mind).

For dairy allergies, you may want to try some dairy-free milk alternatives. Those with wheat allergies will find wheat-free flours valuable in the kitchen.

Allergy-friendly food options vary widely by city, so check local supermarkets, health food stores, and specialty markets to see what's available. The Internet is also a valuable resource for buying these products.

In Your Bathroom

Also be sure to check cosmetics and toiletries for potentially allergenic items, especially if they could end up on your hands or mouth.

It may not be obvious, but products such as shampoos, conditioners, lip balms, sunscreens, lotions, and cosmetics can contain food allergens (e.g., tree nut ingredients).

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Article Sources

  1. Schreier HM, Wright RJ. Stress and food allergy: mechanistic considerations. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2014;112(4):296-301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anai.2013.08.002