I remember the first time I encountered someone who did not understand or care to understand “modern” food allergies. It was in a small town in South Dakota when I went to a restaurant with some people. I asked the waitress if they had any gluten-free options. Her response was, “Oh no, we don’t do that here.” Her bluntness caught me off guard and made me feel embarrassed. The people I was with didn’t have a great understanding of allergies so I was alone in navigating this awkward interaction.
Up until then, the bulk of my experiences with my food allergies had been in larger cities. I did not fully realize that only certain places were more knowledgeable about food-specific allergies and how to handle them. I knew people can sometimes not be very accommodating to food allergies but this was new. That was when I realized not everyone will be accepting of your food allergy needs.
However, that does not invalidate your needs or make your allergies less real. Caring for food allergies is not easy, but finding supportive people will help. This experience made me realize the importance of surrounding yourself with people that want to understand and help you. This is vital for taking care of yourself mentally and physically. In this article, I want to ask and answer these questions:
- How do you talk to your friends and family about your allergies and experiences?
- How do you help them understand the ins and outs of allergies and become more supportive of your journey?
My Background Caring for Food Allergies
For some context on me: I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). For those that don’t know much about IBS, it essentially means that I can eat an apple today and be perfectly fine. Although if I eat an apple tomorrow, I could end up curled up on the couch in pain because my body dislikes apples now. I have to avoid certain foods and can only eat a small portion of others over a short period of time. I could go on for hours about the specifics of my diet with IBS, but for the vast majority of people that is way too much information. Often, I default to “I’m allergic to gluten, dairy, tree nuts and I can’t eat garlic or onion.” That’s easier to say and easier to be understood.
When I explain my diet to my friends and family, I’m worried I’ll overwhelm them. (There is an absurd amount of information I have to retain to live with IBS.) I make it easy for them to understand. I break it down into a quick, simple explanation and let them know that if they have any questions just to ask. More often than not, my friends do ask more questions and I am happy to answer them. I would much rather someone ask questions about my allergies than assume something and I have a reaction to food they have spent time, effort, and money preparing for me. When we create an open dialogue with our friends about our allergies, we can help set everyone at ease. This includes making yourself at ease, which is most important of all.
Taking Care of Your Mental Health
A hidden by-product of having allergies is the mental toll that it can take on someone. Though it is often not discussed, this is an important reality of living with allergies to recognize. For most people with significant allergies, they have spent their whole lives dealing with these limitations. But that does not necessarily mean that they realize the full extent of the stress that is added to daily life. Being able to talk with friends, family, or a therapist can be an important way to exercise self care.
For Food Allergy Allies
Caring for food allergies takes a lot out of you. It may be difficult for those without allergies to understand the anxiety and stress caused by food allergies. So, to the food allergy allies out there, when a food-allergic individual opens up about their allergies, be ready to listen.
- Ask questions to understand the situation.
- Ask how you can best support the individual.
- Question if they get tired of always asking for the food allergen menu at restaurants and if you can take over that role when you are together.
- Most of all, do not assume, just ask!
For Allergic Individuals
And to the food allergic individuals reading this, do not be afraid of these questions. Do not be embarrassed or feel like a burden to others. This is your life, your self-care is important. Embrace the questions and create a safe learning space for others to find out about your allergy. Come up with a support plan for each other. The food allergy journey may be lonely, but you do not have to go it alone. The sooner we begin the conversation to explain our allergies, reactions, and struggles with food, we can help people better understand and support us.
Take Care of Yourself and Those Around You
As we head into 2021, I believe it is important for everyone with allergies to prioritize self-care, and address the stress associated with food allergies. Whether we all realize it or not, our dietary restrictions, allergies, and sensitivities can take a toll on our body both mentally and physically. Surrounding ourselves with people that want to understand what we go through can begin to help with that burden and relieve the stigma and stress around allergies. Let’s all go into 2021 with a better understanding of each other. Let’s take care of ourselves by starting a conversation with others and helping them understand food allergies a bit better.