As an almost thirty year old, I’ve been dealing with allergies in the workplace for about half of my life. From my first job in fast food, to my current job in an office setting, having a severe allergy and a career can be challenging.
Luckily (or maybe unluckily), when I was a kid, there were posters plastered all over the school with my picture on them, along with a little slogan about the fact that I’m allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. Unfortunately, this route is much less effective, and much more embarrassing in an office of 250 people. Lunchrooms and cubicles can be full of people eating allergens. It’s especially difficult to focus when the scent of your allergens lingers throughout the office. However, as a working adult, I can’t just go home every time someone walks by with a sandwich, or when I see someone eating a protein bar. In a large office setting, it’s next to impossible to keep track of who is eating what, and where they’re eating it. As adults working with other adults, it’s important to have a plan that’s both realistic, and effective at keeping you safe.
So how does one deal with allergens in the workplace? It is a good idea to let the people you work directly with about your allergies as they might be more than willing to help you feel more comfortable. In my situation within a large company, you learn to work around everyone else. If groups of people are sitting in the lunchroom consuming my allergens, I politely remove myself from the lunchroom, and find an allergen free place to eat your lunch where I’ll feel more comfortable. If at a colleague’s cubicle, and there is a nut-filled protein bar at their desk, I make sure to not touch their desk during any of my visits. If you’re in a profession where you’re meeting new people, and shaking hands constantly, washing your hands often is a great idea. You never know what type of allergens someone has touched.
Sanitation is also a key component when you’re trying to avoid an allergic reaction in the workplace. If many people work in your direct workspace, it’s important to sanitize and clean the desk area regularly. Wiping down everything from countertops, to telephones, to door handles, and even pens can help in keeping you safe. Washing your hands is also an important aspect to staying safe in the workplace. I always keep antibacterial hand sanitizer at my desk, and ensure I wash my hands regularly throughout the day.
Staying safe from allergens in the workplace can be a challenging ordeal at first, but once you get the hang of it, it will easily become a part of your regular routine.
Has this situation ever happened to you? You are out at a restaurant dining with friends and family, and after you’ve told the server about your allergens (and stressed the importance of proper food preparation), someone else at your table tells a little white lie claiming that they have an allergy too. They casually drop the information, with you knowing their allergy isn’t true. To them, it’s an innocent piece of fiction – maybe they don’t like the taste, or the texture bothers them or they could even be on a new diet. But to you, who has a legitimate diagnosed food allergy, it’s a big problem as you are both suddenly cast in the same light. The server may even flag that the meal your friend is ordering contains their supposed allergen. To which your dinner date may brush it off or say they can have a “cheat day” or that “a little dab won’t hurt.”
Your eyes dart from your dinner companion to the server, silently begging them to understand you’re not like that, that your allergies are important and very real. Has your jaw ever hit the table in disbelief during a situation like this, or caused you to shrink into your chair frozen with anxiety that your allergy’s severity was just seemingly “watered down”? I’ve struggled with how to treat situations like this. I treat my food allergies seriously, I make sure everyone around me knows my allergens, how serious they are and how to identify and respond to a reaction. My allergens are very real and serious. Being put into a situation like the one above isn’t fair.
What do you do? Do you express loudly that your allergen is serious, reaffirming your allergies with the restaurant wait staff? Do you sit quietly and hope the server takes all of the food restrictions seriously regardless of the situation? Do you interrupt your friend and say “stop misleading everyone” and potentially embarrass them in public? It’s tough, it’s awkward for everyone and let’s face it, it can be downright annoying. When this happens to me, I feel like I’ve been put in a position where I need to defend my allergies to everyone around me.
Situations like these can be much more common than you’d think. It’s why it’s time we get honest about our food allergies with ourselves, and with others about the misconceptions surrounding them. It may seem easier to say that you have an allergy when you just don’t enjoy a food. What’s the harm, you think? Personally, I’ve fought for every inch of respect and safety in my life when it comes to my food allergies. Before I found my voice, my mom spent hours on phones calling companies, making food, and generally keeping me safe and bringing normalcy to an otherwise challenging life with food allergies.
It took me a long time to find my confidence. My food allergies are a part of me and a big part of what makes me, me. That’s not to say there isn’t still a struggle between my introvert and extrovert self when it comes to telling people about my food allergies, especially in tense situations like the one above. Dining out with food allergies can be stressful, especially when someone casually stretches the truth about their own dietary issues. It’s important for those with true food allergies to help others understand the importance and seriousness of food allergies. Ask additional questions about food preparation and cross-contamination to prove that you are quite serious about the safety of your food. I still spend a lot of time calling restaurants and companies, trying to find safe food and places to go. When others fabricate a food allergy to avoid foods they don’t like to eat, it can feel like it diminishes all the time and energy we as a food allergy community have put into staying safe and aware with our food allergies.
Let’s face it, there is always going to be a dish or food that you don’t like (for me it’s cauliflower). We can avoid that food and tell others we don’t like the taste or texture, but we should never deceive others or misrepresent these dislikes as an allergen. Although it may seem like a harmless and victimless statement, it can hurt those around you who do have a food allergy.
For those of us with a food allergy, instead of getting angry or upset when people evade foods with false allergy statements, we can instead teach them about the seriousness of a food allergy and the affect that a little lie could have on your requests, so we can all feel safe and satisfied when dining out.
Summer is right around the corner, and everyone who loves camping, hiking, or enjoying a refreshing beverage on a patio with friends should be excited. Since I love camping, let’s set the scene on a Friday afternoon in the grocery store gathering some food before some friends and I head up to a favourite campsite for a weekend of s’mores, fishing, swimming, and canoeing. I have a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, and as I walk by the pastry section in the grocery store, my friend says “Oh, we shouldn’t get those donuts, that’ll kill you. Let’s get chips for snack instead”. This is a common scenario that I have encountered on a regular basis so let’s talk about it.
I also love patio season, so here’s another scenario. Let’s say some friends and I are enjoying the sun on a patio, looking at the drink menu. I also have an allergy to raw pineapple, which has been difficult for me because I grew into it. I had been able to enjoy this, my favourite fruit, up until a few months ago when I discovered through a food allergy test, that I had developed a life-threatening allergy. As we’re looking at the drink menu, one of my friends says aloud, “Oh, look at the cocktail selection. You can’t have that one, or that one, or that one, or even that one. Man, you can’t have anything!”
These two situations can happen all too often to an adult with allergies, and to an outsider, these phrases may appear harmless. But let’s say you recently experienced an anaphylactic allergic reaction where you had to use your epinephrine auto-injector, called 9-1-1, struggled to breath, and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. If someone refers to one of your allergens by saying “that will kill you”, they may think they are making a harmless statement. If you’re like me, however, and have suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction where you may have thought your situation was life-threatening, hearing something say “that’ll kill you” may bring about a strong emotional response. Like me, you may remember the fear you had when you weren’t able to breathe, or the relief you felt when the fire fighters or paramedics rushed into your house to save you, or the comfort you felt when you came home from the hospital. It is important for those with – and especially without – a life-threatening allergy to be cognizant of the wording they use when describing someone’s allergen.
The same goes for the phrase, “oh, you can’t have that”. This may seem even more benign, but to an individual with an allergy who is with a group of friends enjoying a food that they cannot enjoy, they may feel ostracized or left out. As someone who developed allergies as an adult who had previously enjoyed foods that I cannot have anymore, I often feel sad to hear others comment on my shortcomings in this way. Although I do appreciate someone trying to look out for me, there’s another way to go about it. A way that doesn’t single me out or make me feel uncomfortable.
If you are an adult with allergies, you may have experienced these scenarios before. You may not have noticed that these phrases were said, or you might have experienced a strong emotional response, bringing you back to a severe reaction. It’s important to be able to balance your appreciation for their concern and your annoyance at their possible ignorance to the gravity of what they’re saying. A possible response is, “thanks for bringing it up, but please don’t use that wording.” Be honest with your friends and let them know how you really feel. They likely didn’t even know their words had such an impact. Slowly, let’s all change the landscape of misused allergy phrases.
As an adult with allergies, I understand that it’s important to ensure that individuals close to me are informed about my allergies in order to avoid reactions. I recently grew into some food allergies that I consider strange, and when I told my family members about these allergies, it was a fairly straightforward conversation. I simply told them what I was allergic to, what could happen if I ingest these allergens, and what to do in case I have a reaction. They asked some questions such as: “How much do you have to eat to have a reaction?”, “Will you have a reaction by smelling the allergen or by touching it?” and “Can we still have the allergen in the house?”. I provided them with answers and we went about our day. I didn’t feel any pressure from them and I wasn’t worried that they would abandon me as a brother or son because I was confident that they understood what I had shared.
This conversation can be a little more challenging when discussing allergies with someone I’m out on a first date with. There’s been times when I had limited options of where to go out for dinner because of my allergy, and I sometimes thought, what if I’m going on a date with a person who is a big foodie? If you’re like me, you might be afraid that they may see you as someone with baggage or that dating you would be too much of a challenge. Let’s be clear on something I’ve learned from experience: if someone doesn’t want to maintain a romantic relationship with you just because you’re an adult with allergies, that person likely isn’t worth your time. Nevertheless, it can be challenging to discuss allergies within a new romantic relationship.
Scenario One: First Date Jitters (What if they don’t like me because of my allergies?)
Here’s a hypothetical scenario that I will use to teach a lesson that I learned through experience. Jack has food allergies and is out on a first date with Lisa. They find that they are really hitting it off. They find that they have many things in common and their personalities complement each other. As the night closes, Jack walks Lisa to a cab, and she leans in to kiss him goodnight. Unfortunately, he’s unsure if she’s eaten one of his allergens during the day, and he knows that it could be risky to kiss. So, he pulls away, leaving her in an awkward limbo. Jack thinks about two options: he can sprint in the opposite direction, never to see her again, or he can stop to explain to Lisa that he has a life-threatening food allergy and check to see what she ate before they move in for a safe kiss.
I’ve been in this situation before and find that it is beneficial to causally bring up my food allergies to a new date early in the date to avoid this awkward confrontation. If your allergy doesn’t come up in conversation, or you don’t want to centre the attention on it during the date, then you may have to turn away from a friendly kiss in order to remain safe in the moment. Don’t worry about how awkward it may feel. Just stay strong and explain the situation to your date. They’ll probably feel relieved that the reason you didn’t want to kiss them wasn’t because you didn’t like them. This is a truthful situation of the classic “it’s not you, it’s me.”
But let’s say that Jack had discussed his food allergy with his new date Lisa, and he avoided the awkward pull-back ahead of time. They’ve enjoyed several new dates together. Let’s discuss another situation that can commonly come up in a relationship where one of the people has a severe food allergy. Jack and his new girlfriend Lisa are going to a dinner party. About 10 to 15 people are expected to be in attendance, and everyone is responsible for bringing an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert. Jack and Lisa bring an allergy-friendly dish so that no matter what, he has a safe option. Jack and Lisa arrive early to catch up with their friends who are hosting. Other friends begin arriving, bringing their food in and setting it up on the counter, or putting it in the oven to keep warm. Jack notices that as guests arrive, Lisa asks each one of them about the ingredients and preparation methods for each dish. She’s not subtle, and she even begins to loudly scold guests for bringing dishes that aren’t safe for Jack to eat. Jack knows that Lisa only wants the best for him, but it is also clear to him that she hasn’t encountered a severe allergy with past relationships, and he thinks she may be taking it over the top. What would you do if you were Jack?
If I was Jack, I would talk to Lisa in private, thanking her for her diligence, but explaining that not everyone has to cater to my allergies, as I am comfortable eating the dish we safely prepared and brought to the dinner. I find that this discussion with your significant other about the accommodation of your food allergy at social settings is important ahead of time in order to avoid inadvertently blaming others for not accommodating an allergy. Although Lisa was being protective and this can be appreciated by anyone with a food allergy, there are more delicate ways to approach this situation that I would be more comfortable with.
Scenario Three: Meeting the Family (How and when should I bring up my allergy?)
Jack and Lisa are getting along very well, and after a few weeks, Jack brings Lisa home to meet his family. Jack’s parents meet Lisa and they enjoy a lovely evening together. Lisa has planned for Jack to meet her family and invites him over for brunch one Saturday. Jack is greeted warmly by Lisa’s parents. Everyone sits down on the patio to enjoy a lovely brunch, but Jack notices that his allergen is on the table and everyone is using the same serving spoon for everything. Jack knows that the food has been cross-contaminated, and that he shouldn’t eat anything in order to avoid an allergic reaction. Jack sips his coffee nervously, trying to think of how to approach this.
It can be difficult to bring up your allergies to a significant other’s family after they’ve already served you food. You don’t want to seem rude by refusing, especially if you’re meeting them for the first time. However, it is important to remember that first and foremost, I would never eat cross-contaminated food. You can pretend that you’re not hungry, or you have a stomach ache, or even pretend you have a phone call and make an exit. These tactics will probably work, but they won’t work every time, and you don’t want to start off a relationship with your significant other’s parents by lying. The best approach is to bring up your allergy calmly (preferably before the actual meal), explain what might happen if you eat your allergen in order to convey the severity of it to them, and reassure the family that it’s not their fault. Or make sure that your partner explains your allergies in detail to their parents ahead of time. This can be challenging but it’s better that is happens sooner, rather than later.
Dating is fun, it’s exciting, and sometimes it’s scary, especially with food allergies, but keep some of these scenarios in mind the next time you hit the town for a date and it will go smoothly!
Spring is in the air – but so is pollen. Many of my food allergies are related to my pollen allergies, and so in years past I’ve simply avoided the outdoors once the trees start blooming.
This year, however, I’m training and fundraising for the Paramedic Ride (www.paramedicride.ca), and so I have been biking outdoors A LOT. My allergist and I have been tweaking my medications to make this more possible, but I also have a few other non-medical options that I use to cope.
Cool: Cold, damp cloths are so soothing on the eyes. I listen to podcasts or sleep while I’m doing it and just let it soak in. My niece’s strategy is to hold a cloth on one eye, and read with the other, then switches.
Shower: When the pollen gets sticky, more frequent showers can be helpful! I also find showers to be soothing on the lungs.
As with any other treatment, find things that work for you, and check with your medical professionals before you try something new.
What techniques do you use to cope with pollen, and get yourself outdoors?
Happy Food Allergy Awareness Month! I think all of us “allergy folk” raise awareness without even really knowing that is what we’re doing. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in the past few years, and for this blog post I reflected on some of the ways I’ve been able to raise awareness while travelling through Europe. Here are two of my favourite experiences discussing food allergies while travelling.
The first story is from summer 2018, when I stayed in Finland for two months. I used to live in Finland, so I went back to visit some friends. I went to one friend’s parent’s house with her the first weekend I was in Finland and was pleasantly surprised to learn everyone in her family had an allergy of some sort. My friend can’t eat tree nuts and most fruits, her brother can’t eat apples, her other brother’s girlfriend can’t eat fish or dairy. Overall, her family was really educated about food allergies. I thought, great, I don’t have to work so hard here in explaining about food allergies! They had a barbecue and I ate some food I had brought with me, and we had a great night sitting by the lake behind their house.
I went back a second time, closer to the end of my trip, and we discussed food allergies some more. We ended up determining their family members have what we would call “OAS” here, or Oral Allergy Syndrome, whereas I have an IgE-mediated food allergy. We talked about the differences in our allergies and the differences in our treatments of a reaction. I learned a lot about my friend’s fruit allergies, which are actually an allergy to birch pollen that gets into the fruits during their development. I was able to teach them about my food allergies, but I also got to learn a lot about a different type of allergy that I didn’t know much about.
This second story is definitely my favourite story. I spent four days in Bergen, Norway in August, while on my Finland trip. On my first evening there, I met with an elderly American couple who were clearly lost. I gave them directions (pros of always having a valid data card when travelling!) and circled around the block, only to run into them again – still lost. I helped them find their hotel and they offered to buy me dinner as a thank you. I explained that I have a ton of food allergies and probably couldn’t eat anything at the restaurant, but I’d gladly go sit with them and get to know them more.
The wife, I learned, is a retired schoolteacher and knew a bit about allergies, as some of her former students had them. She really thought peanut allergies were “the bad allergy” and didn’t know other foods could cause equally life-threatening reactions because, as far as she knew, none of her students ever had other allergies. They were both very interested in why I was choosing not to eat at restaurants (I only eat from grocery stores when travelling), why I carried so many auto-injectors (in case I had a reaction and couldn’t find more, I brought an extra set), what my soy allergy meant compared to my peanut allergy, and what I typically eat. They were surprised to find out that soy is in so many foods in both the US and Canada, but also surprised about the variety of foods that I could still eat. I showed them the allergy menu in McDonalds and explained why it was there, and they were both shocked that even fast food restaurants had these allergen-aware menus. The wife was fascinated about the science behind what happens during a reaction.
I ended up spending a lot of time with them over my four day stay and we went to a lot of museums together. We’ve kept in touch through Facebook ever since. A few months ago, the wife commented on one of my posts saying she’s learned so much about allergies since we became friends and that I’ve made her much more empathetic towards people with all allergies. Sometimes, it’s the people you least expect to educate that end up learning the most!
I have never been a big fan of chocolate. There, I said it. Put a chocolate cake and a bowl of chips in front of me and I’ll go for the chips every single time. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a slice of cake every now and then, but my true taste bud love lies with savory sensation, not sweet treats. But when your birthday rolls around you can’t exactly put candles on a bowl of chips or popcorn and cut of a slice for your birthday guests (or can you…). My birthday happens to fall during the tumultuous spring month of April. You never know what you’re going to get weather and seasonal allergy wise. Some years call for a delicious and refreshing ice-cream cake to help beat the surprising heat and warmth, and other years rely on a rich cake while it snows for the third week in a row. Whatever your choice birthday treat is, it can be difficult to find a substitute or safe snack for your food allergies or intolerances. Whether I’m baking a birthday surprise for someone or giving someone some helpful hints on what I like, I have a go to birthday recipe for my taste-buds’ every desire. A simple cake recipe with an extra special topping is sure to please and have your diners saying “how creative and delicious” as they go for their second piece or cupcake.
Chocolate on Chocolate:
2 cups all-purpose flour
For substitutes: Almond, coconut, or Quinoa flour.
2 cups sugar
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
For substitutes: Whatever your allergen is, dairy substitutes can be: Almond, coconut milk, or cashew (Note: These substitutes may make the mix a bit sweeter.)
½ cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
For substitutes: You can use apple sauce, baking soda and vinegar, tapioca, flax seed or chia seed.
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water
Instructions for Cake:
Preheat oven to 350º F.
Add flour, sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt to a large bowl. Mix well until combined.
Add milk (or substitute), vegetable oil, eggs (or substitute) and vanilla to above mixture and mix together.
Add boiling water to the cake batter until well combined.
Distribute batter evenly into a cake pan (or cupcake pans, fill half way to top so they can rise).
Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean after poking the centre.
8 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
3 cups confectioners sugar
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Instructions for Icing:
Beat butter until smooth
Add dry ingredients to the above mix
Add vanilla extract
Beat until smooth and fluffy
Set aside and ensure cake is cool
Spread the icing on the cake using a spoon or spatula, trying to cover all sides evenly
Now, here is where my secret ingredient, my delicious proverbial cherry on top idea is added to this otherwise normal cake mix. I’m going to let you in on my secret ingredient that will appease any taste bud whether they prefer chocolaty sweetness or salty treats. After you’ve iced your cake or cupcakes with your fluffy chocolate icing, as they cool, pop some delicious popcorn (salted lightly) and place it on top of your cupcakes or cake. Distribute it evenly or add 2-3 pieces to each cupcake. If you’re feeling like your sweet tooth is winning, add a mixture of salty and caramel covered popcorn together. It adds a salty, crunchy topping for your moist and chocolaty cupcakes. Even for someone, like me, who isn’t too crazy about chocolate will love this combination of tastes.
I developed my salt tooth, as I call it as an adult, and haven’t looked back since. It seems chocolate lost its appeal for me. It’s not you, it’s me, I swear chocolate. When my birthday comes around each year I don’t want to miss out on the cake and candles. I’ve found a great merger of my favourite salty snack and an excellent cake mixture that’s sure to have you blowing out those candles as soon as “Happy Birthday” is in its final line so you can eat.