All posts by Adults with Allergies Blog Editor

Skating with Allergies

Here in Ottawa, one of our favourite winter sports is ice skating. With the world’s largest skating rink, it’s no wonder! Folks come from all over the world to skate on the 7.8km long rink (Rideau Canal) and enjoy the classic “BeaverTail” pastry. My mother quickly learned to bribe me out onto the canal with those sweet treats as a kid… but then I developed food allergies.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy skating the Canal for exercise, but I’m still grieving the loss of eating those BeaverTail treats afterwards. Last year I made my own top-allergen free adaptation (https://epiadventure.wordpress.com/2018/01/26/beavers-tails/) but this year I’ve been too busy skating!

After getting a job as a first aider, I’ve now skated over 200 km on the Rideau Canal Skateway this year reaction free! Here are my best allergy-conscious skating tips:

  1. Dress warmly! Layers are really important (with the right materials). If you’re contact allergic to wool, you can try adding it as a middle layer, or find a sweat-wicking alternative like Polartec. Fun fact: I over-layered on my first shift and the sweat condensed and froze onto my hard-shell jacket!
  2. Bring your own equipment or call ahead to ask about cleaning! I definitely spilled my allergen-safe hot chocolate all over my skates this year, and I wasn’t able to get them totally clean. I don’t share my skates, but it’s something to consider if you plan on renting. Helmets are a fantastic idea on the canal as well, so I bought my own to avoid any lice, allergens, or scented cleaning sprays.
  3. Bring allergen-safe snacks with you! The food huts aren’t always open, and they’re so small that cross-contamination is a huge risk. For example, the Beavertails’ website lists tree nuts, wheat, dairy, soy, barley, tropical oils, and sulphites as being present in their huts. Instead, I like to bring bananas, golden kiwi, pumpkin seeds, rice crackers, and safe chocolate chips.
  4. Bring something warm to drink! I often forget to bring my thermos and regret it since it’s so easy to warm up with a hot drink. Recently I’ve taken to making safe hot chocolate by pouring 3Tbsp of chocolate chips into my insulated mug, then filling it 2/3 with boiling water. I close it up & shake until the chocolate is mostly dissolved then add my safe milk. This leaves me with a perfect temperature drink that is a bit less lumpy than other methods I’ve tried.
  5. Bring wipes! There are often people eating inside the warm changing huts, and this is the easiest way to make sure your hands are clean before you eat.
  6. Keep your auto-injector on you and keep it warm but accessible. When emergency (911) is called for an incident on the Rideau Canal, the first aiders like me on Skate Patrol are dispatched as well, because there are a lot of people and the ice ambulance is only available during the day on Winterlude weekends. We then transfer to the land ambulances as soon as possible. Fun fact: I wear my auto-injector on the side of my leg so that I can kneel on the ice while helping people. Surprisingly, no one ever notices it so I point it out to my partner and supervisor before every shift.

See you on the ice!

– Janice H.

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Spreading Awareness about “Hidden” Ingredients

As those living with food allergies, many of us have spent years becoming expert-level ingredient checkers. We know our ‘allergen-safe’ brands, what to avoid, and have grown to incorporate our ingredient checking into every grocery shopping trip. I try to follow the general rule of checking three times: once at the store, once when I unpack the groceries at home, and finally, when I am about to cook with the item. The large majority of the time I catch any issues at the store, but there have been several times where I have caught something last minute – often when a brand I have used before has changed their ingredient list or added a ‘may contain’ statement. A couple of my last-minute catches include plain white rice with a ‘may contain peanuts’ label and sausages that were labelled ‘may contain tree nuts’.

Our experience and awareness of hidden ingredients in food, make us the most effective people to help teach those around us what to look for when preparing food that we can safely eat. If someone is inviting me over for a meal, they want to ensure it is a safe experience. I have found that I can often play an active role in that process.

I typically try to stick with meals consisting of mostly fresh food with few ingredients, as this reduces the risk of cross-contamination. For example, unseasoned meat and vegetables is a reliable go-to meal for me.  Pre-seasoned or packaged versions can sometimes have ingredients that you wouldn’t expect. When someone is making me a meal, I also find it helpful to give the person cooking some examples of where hidden ingredients or issues can be. For example, flour has many ingredients, and there are different varieties such as almond flour which would obviously be an issue for people allergic to tree nuts. I also remind everyone that I won’t eat ingredients bought in bulk since the risk of cross-contamination at the store is typically high. I find that people have a tendency to buy rarely-used spices or baking ingredients at bulk stores since they don’t need large quantities. Other items that non-allergic people may use without considering checking ingredient labels are condiments and sauces. As we know, even these can have unexpected ingredients. Finally, I also mention to a host that multi-use kitchen tools, such as cutting boards have the potential risk of cross-contamination if not properly cleaned.

Using my years of experience and first-hand knowledge to help others become aware of the different areas of risk that I face is important. The more they are aware, the more they will understand my processes and how they can help make sure the food is safe.

– Alison M.

Winter Day Trips with a Food Allergy

Every Christmas, my parents give the gift of a family day trip to me, my brother, my sister, and our significant others. In the past, we have gone snowshoeing, cross country skiing, hiking, stayed for a weekend in a cozy Bed and Breakfast cottage, and this year we went snow-tubing. It’s always nice to have everyone together for a fun day of activity!

With 8 of us all focused on the excitement of our full day activity, you may be thinking how we prepare food for these excursions. That’s a good question, especially when you consider all our food restrictions:

  1. My brother and I are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.
  2. My sister is allergic to almonds.
  3. My sister-in-law is allergic to multiple raw fruit.
  4. Oh, and my sister and her fiancé are also vegan, so we have to factor that into the equation!

Since dining out can sometimes get chaotic with our family, we tend to prepare and bring our own food for the day, then head back to my parents’ house for dinner. The process begins, as always, with preparation! My mom always plans the day’s menu well in advance and sends an email out to all of us asking for food preferences based on her planned menu. For example, she may ask what we would specifically like on a sandwich, or what kind of snacks we would prefer, by providing options that we can select. This not only makes her life easier when heading to the grocery store, but it also helps all of us feel more confident in what we will eat during our outing.

Once the menu is finalized, everything else just falls into place. My mom typically buys all the food and everyone else pitches in to help with preparation when needed. Coolers will keep our food in ready condition to eat, but with winter being so cold, we also opt for keeping the food in bags and let the cool air do the rest. Now we can focus on having a blast, knowing that allergen-safe food is waiting for us whenever we need it.

If you plan on doing some winter excursions this year, make sure you prepare food ahead of time, determine what precautions you need to take to remain safe with your food allergy, then ensure you stick with all your safe practices that you use in everyday living. Winter is a great time for all kinds of activities – try not to let your food allergy prevent you from experiencing them! Have fun and stay safe.

– Dylan B.

For more information on skiing with allergies, check out our blog post by clicking here! 

Or, if you’re looking for tips on travelling during the winter with food allergies, check out this post. 

Tradition for the Holidays

Everyone’s family is its own special kind of eccentric; and nothing brings it out more than the holidays. Family, friends, dinners, presents, decorating, cooking, the list of traditions goes on and on, unique to us and our loved ones. In my life, I’ve created some very special customs.

Some date back to when I was young that were indoctrinated in me by my parents, and others I’ve created with friends to ensure we all get the most joy and love from the holidays.

Having an allergy around this time of year can be a big burden, especially when so many events center around food. Well allow me to kindly disagree. Although it can seem overwhelming at times, let me share with you some of my favorite traditions, made better and more special by my food allergies.

Potlucks: Every year my friends and I get together to celebrate the holidays. Over the years, traditions have developed amongst ourselves ranging from ugly sweaters to Secret Santa gift exchanges. The biggest tradition we have is sitting around a table or hanging out in the kitchen while sharing delicious foods with each other. Potlucks can be a stressful event if you have a food allergy. We always have to be mindful of ingredients and cross-contamination because every platter or covered serving dish holds a certain level of uncertainty and concern. It can make a holiday party less enjoyable and stressful. A tradition we’ve created to combat a mystery plate is to list the ingredients of your dish. Whether it be in an email, a fancy place card accompanying your dish or giving out the actual recipe, we let everyone know what the dish is and what’s in it. You never want to be speculating or guessing what’s on your plate. Everyone likes surprises during the holidays but not like this. Even though we may want to keep our prized recipes secret, we choose to take surprise out of that tuna surprise casserole and promise not to tell anyone the secret ingredient.

Getting into the spirit might mean partaking in one or two spirits. If there are mixed punches or festive beverages being shared, ask for the ingredients. Different alcohols can have different ingredients and they are not always labelled. It’s important to do some research into the different breweries, wineries, etc. to ensure your allergens aren’t present. An important rule and one we should all follow regardless of an allergy, is don’t share your drink, or leave it unattended. Use red “solo” cups with your name written on it or wine glass identifiers to better distinguish your wine or eggnog glass when you put it down to unwrap a gift or hug an old friend.

Boxes are made for sharing:  One beautiful tradition my family has come to cherish is ordering, sharing and enjoying Vermont Nut Free Chocolates together. When we discovered this company, it was incredible. Growing up we didn’t have the opportunity to eat many treats that weren’t made by my mom or grandma. Since then, we’ve discovered several safe places to buy and eat from but the tradition of reading the brochure and choosing our favorites chocolate (mine is the maple creams) remains. Come Christmas morning/afternoon after all the presents are unwrapped we’d each open our box of chocolate, mixing and matching with each other while we showed off our gifts and shared the moment together.

It’s easy to let our food allergies consume us with stress and anger around this time of year. We may think it’s better to shut ourselves off from others to avoid friends and parties with food because we’re worried or scared. Whether it’s with our immediate family or the friends we choose to call so, the holidays are time best spent with the people we love. We should never let our food allergies get in the way of the people we cherish or look forward to seeing each year. Tradition can come in many forms during the holidays making them much more meaningful and special. So, raise a glass, eat a cookie and hug your friends because you’d be surprised what can eventually become a tradition.

  • Arianne K.

Food Allergy Guidelines: Holiday Edition

The holiday season is now upon us!  Along with shopping for gifts and pulling out your ski gear, this means holiday gatherings throughout the upcoming month and seeing family and friends.  So often these events revolve around food which can be stressful for those of us living with food allergies. Here are some of the guidelines I’ve put in place for myself to help ease any uncertainty I may have in these environments and allow me to enjoy the event:

  1. Find out what type of event it is in advance.  I find cocktail parties much easier to navigate as there is less focus on the food and whether or not you are eating.  I try to speak to the organizer in advance and, if the event is at a restaurant, I will often contact the restaurant directly.  I often end up not eating at all at these events, but it’s helpful to know if any of my most severe allergens are being passed around.
  2. Offer to host a dinner yourself!  While this can be a lot of work, it will ensure that you know exactly what is being served and what you can eat safely.
  3. Get involved with the planning.  For work parties, I have often been on the organizing committee and involved in the venue and menu selection.  The ability to influence the decision on where the event is held and what will be served is key and you can also be an advocate for other people with dietary restrictions to ensure others are comfortable asking questions about the menu.
  4. Bring your own meal.  If it is a gathering revolving around a meal (ie. a sit-down lunch or dinner), speak to the host/hostess about bringing your own food.  I typically try to match my food to follow the same theme as what they are planning to serve and bring it in my own container that I can easily heat up.
  5. Eat first!  If you are going to an event where food will be passed around, be sure to eat beforehand so that you don’t end up hungry by the end of the night.
  6. Be first in line.  While it may appear rude to some, I have always felt more comfortable dishing my food early in the serving process when the serving utensils are not being passed between dishes and there is a smaller chance of cross-contamination.
  7. If you are attending a lunch or dinner, offer to bring a dish that is substantial enough that you can just eat that, if necessary.  Also bring along a set of dedicated serving utensils to ensure that they are clean and not being passed between dishes.

If you feel unsure about something, don’t feel the need to eat or drink it.  Those of us who are hyper aware of cross-contamination will know that guests or servers often pass around different food trays, mix & match serving utensils and even touch drink glasses without thinking about what they’ve previously touched or eaten.

The holidays and all the events associated with them can be a real time of stress and anxiety for those of us with food allergies, but if you can plan ahead, communicate well, and are comfortable with the fact that not all gatherings will revolve around the food, then you can enjoy them safely!

– Alison M.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Life-Threatening Allergies

Having a life-threatening food allergy can be scary, but what happens when you also suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder? How do you cope with having a sensitive food allergy, without having anxiety attacks every time you go out to eat, or go to a party?

About five years ago, I was diagnosed with a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder but had been noticing symptoms for far longer than that. For me, Generalized Anxiety Disorder symptoms come in the form of constant worrying, with certain situations making those worries feel even more intense. Prior to this diagnosis, I experienced two anaphylactic reactions, both of which required me to administer my EpiPen®. One of these anaphylactic reactions occurred at a Christmas party I was at, and another was at a casual fast food restaurant, where there was a miscommunication between myself and the cashier. Both instances caused my anxiety levels to rise and made me feel intensely worried anytime I ate away from home.

Overcoming the obstacles of being able to eat food that I didn’t prepare myself was a challenge, but with time and preparation, eating out became a manageable task, which didn’t cause me to feel severe anxiety.

The first step I took in managing my food allergy anxiety was making a promise to myself to be far more diligent than I had been in the past. One area of my life that I recognized I needed to take more control over in order to help manage my anxiety was going to events with baked goods. Typically, if I went to this kind of event , I felt confident enough to eat it if the baker assured me that they were tree nut and peanut safe. However, this still left the possibility of “what if?” As a healthier alternative for my mental health, I started bringing my own baked goods, or potluck items to parties in two separate containers – one container for myself, to ensure that my items didn’t get cross contaminated with other items, and another container for the rest of the party-goers to enjoy. If I wanted to enjoy food that I didn’t bring, I started to make sure that it was pre-packaged from a store and had ingredient labels on it that I could read. I would also ensure I was the first one to grab food out of the package before any other cross-contamination could occur.

The second step I took in managing my food allergy anxiety, was being more careful and inquisitive at restaurants – even fast food ones. Typically, when going to a fast food restaurant, I had a bad habit of not mentioning my food allergies at all. When ordering a sandwich, which was supposed to be allergy safe, it mistakenly had a sauce on it which included tree-nuts. This bad experience caused me to have severe anxiety whenever I visited any type of restaurant or fast food establishment. After this incident, I started being more diligent to ensure that every restaurant I visited – from fast food to fine dining – was aware that I had life-threatening allergies to tree nuts and peanuts. I also started to make sure that I asked about the food making and cooking procedures at the restaurant, and whether or not the kitchen used tree nuts and peanuts in their dishes. Doing my research and asking lots of questions helps to minimize my anxiety and helps to ensure I feel safer when eating out in public.

The third and final step that I took in conquering my food allergy anxiety was being more confident. Not only did I feel anxious about my food allergies, but I also constantly worried about whether I was being a burden to the people around me when asking lots of questions about allergy safe items or holding up the server at a restaurant to ensure my dish was safe for me to eat. Since being diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I’ve come across a lot of resources which have helped me deal with my constant worries. Over time, I’ve learned that I’m not being bothersome when asking about allergy safe food, because without doing that, my life could be at risk.

Having life-threatening food allergies, and managing anxiety can be tough, but with the right tools and confidence, it’s extremely possible.

– Rachel MacCarl

Guest Post: When an Angling Passion and a Fish Allergy Collide

I learned to enjoy fishing a couple years before learning that I was allergic to fish.

My first fishing experience happened when I was a boy of four. My immediate family was down in Texas on a cattle ranch owned by my mother’s family, which, like most ranches in the area, featured a pond that was regularly stocked with fish.

Accompanied by our dad, my brother and I went to work on the pond with nothing but a cane pole, a plastic bobber, and a worm on a hook. I don’t remember much about that day of fishing, with the exception of a clear memory of gripping the wetted line and hoisting aloft my first, wriggling catch – a perch of what must have been no more than five inches.

Of course, I had plenty of help from my dad but pride swelled in my chest.

A few years later, another sensation signaled that I’d have to take extra precautions with fishing for the rest of my life.

Right after the birth of my third and fourth brothers – the twins – my mother arranged a housekeeper to help tidy up our Northern California home. She was a great help to us, and very generous. The housekeeper’s husband was an avid angler who fished the San Francisco Bay and sometimes ventured into coastal waters for larger fare.

One day our housekeeper turned up with the gift of her husband’s latest catch – a beautiful red snapper. The species of rockfish has since become somewhat endangered off the California coast. My mom dutifully accepted the snapper and proceeded to fillet and cook it.

Like many Western families at the time, our experience of eating fish was limited to the occasional tuna fish sandwich (a nice break from peanut butter and jelly or bologna). So, the spread of snapper and thick potato chips was quite the novelty, and my brother and I made quick work of eating it.

A few minutes after finishing the meal, however, I began to feel a prickly sensation in my mouth and throat. Looking in the mirror, I saw that my lips were ringed with red hives. In a few more minutes, the hives sprang up on my back as well. The reaction (not to mention the age range) was very similar to Simone’s account of her first experience as noted in the blog post linked here: Oral Allergy Syndrome.

Luckily, the reaction stopped there and subsided over the course of a day, but the implication was clear: the snapper had caused an allergic reaction.

This was quite the surprise, given my family’s regular consumption of tuna fish. But fish and shellfish allergies are quite complex, it turns out. Some people are allergic to certain proteins called parvalbumins found in all fish species. Others, like me, are allergic to the parvalbumins found in some fish species but not others.

Unfortunately, there’s no real pattern of intolerance for me to follow. Tuna are in the Scombroidea family, which is the best tolerated fish among those with fish allergies, and I’ve continued to eat tuna to this day with no impact (although I take my tuna sandwich with my epinephrine auto-injector at the ready, just in case).

I’ve had allergic reactions to other species, including cod and mahi-mahi, during a couple of controlled-condition tests in my early 20’s. In each case, the reaction was the same: a prickly sensation in my throat accompanied by hives. It has never risen to a level beyond one that is manageable by a dose of an anti-histamine to minimize the hives on my body.

I’ve stopped testing new fish species since it just doesn’t seem worth it to take the risk. Despite the new allergy, I’ve maintained an interest in angling over the years. When I fish, I follow the recommendations from the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology (AAAI):

  • Wear gloves when handling your catch. Bonus points for wetting them before making contact to minimize trauma to the fish if you’re planning on a release.
  • Minimize the chance of sticking yourself with the hook. The best way to do this is with a good pair of jaw spreaders and fishing pliers. Together, they make quick work of removing a fish hook, which again is easier on the fish.
  • Never forget your epinephrine auto-injector.

Of course, the AAAI cautions anyone interested in fishing to follow their own best judgment. Their rules have worked for me so far, allowing me to keep pursuing my angling interest.

Recently I launched FishingTech.com. Because some of the most rewarding aspects of fishing – cooking and eating them – are off the table for me, the site’s focus is on other areas: the history and future of the electronics, gadgets, and software that make the sport easier for pros, more fun for amateurs like me, and more accessible to folks who couldn’t otherwise be fishing.

I like to tell myself that the fish allergy is also helping me by giving me some kind of karmic boost, with the fish somehow sensing that there’s no possibility of predation. But if that were the case, you’d expect a better success rate.

But I guess that’s why they call it fishing, not catching!

– Andrew M.