Category Archives: Allergies and Anxiety

To “Pensacon” and Beyond

“Let’s go to Pensacola, Florida for a Comic-con/Film festival, a film I made is in it and could be fun?” My brother said this to me and I thought, well why not? Planning a trip with food allergies on the fly can be stressful but luckily, I had a great travel partner who helped me stay safe and positive while exploring on this trip.

Our flights were short and the airline was cooperative with my food allergies. I brought some sandwiches in my carry-on bag, but when I’m bored at an airport there is only so much I can read and watch before I want to snack. After asking about allergen safety at a few places, it became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to find a safe place to eat, let alone find anything healthy. So I turned to my trusty pre-packaged food with handy ingredient labels to sate my snacking needs. I always find it best to find and pack a brand of snack that I trust, then re-read the ingredients and wash my hands/eating area when I’m in this type of situation. It helps give me confidence that there will at least be this food to eat, if nothing else can be found.

Before we even set foot in the “Sunshine State,” I checked out a few restaurants online and called ahead to ask if they could accommodate me. I always try to see what the local establishments have to offer, but I didn’t want to rely on just one plan so we made sure there were safe “chain restaurants” around where I felt comfortable with their food allergy policies. I also brought a lot of my own food and relied on packaged items. When we arrived in beautiful fogged-over Pensacola, I was pleasantly surprised with the cooking amenities in our rooms. We were able buy items at a local grocery store for our breakfast/lunches to eat before we set out on our adventure at the comic-con.

One thing I have noticed when travelling is that it’s tough to keep my food allergies in perspective when I’m experiencing sensory overload. One of the hardest things I find is staying focused and safe when so much is going on around me. It’s tempting to touch interesting things, not to mention handrails for stairs, doors to hold open and the list goes on. Your hands are on everything and that can be risky when you have a food allergy. Since I was going to be in a place where many hands are touching many things, I tried to wash my hands as often as possible. I also chose to carry around a pack of wet wipes to clean surface areas where I ate. You never know who touched what and it’s always a good idea to keep your eating area clean.

Being surrounded by so many themed drinks, snacks and other food-related items, I had to constantly remind myself to subvert my expectations until I read ingredients and understand what was safe and what was not safe. It can be hard watching everyone around you, even your travel partners, try new cool foods, but something I’ve learned is that you sometimes have to take a step back and assess the situation to re-align your mindset. For example, even though I may not be able to have a drink or snack themed to my favourite wizard, I can take home a commemorative cup and other keepsake that I will have forever. I can even ask what the drink or food ingredients are and try making my own allergen-safe version at home.  It’s all about the little things and finding a compromise. It may be disappointing for the moment but my bet is that something new and wonderful will come along and make you forget those negative feelings.

Keeping what’s best in mind for my food allergies and still having an outlet for those around me to experience culture or events can be a tricky balance. I never want my food allergies to hold me or anyone else back, especially when it came to the unique experiences the comic-con offered. One particularly tricky situation was themed restaurants around the city celebrating various “nerdoms.” After using my best detective skills, talking to two separate servers and a chef, we determined that most items were in direct contact with my allergens. I chose not to eat there, but I didn’t want to stop my brother from having those experiences, so I decided that I felt comfortable enough having a drink while he ate then we found somewhere else for me to eat. Finding a balance between personal comfort and safety is key. Never put yourself in a situation that isn’t safe or makes you feel anxious and don’t be embarrassed to speak your mind and tell people when you don’t feel right.

Overall, the trip was a success! On our way home I was shocked when my brother commented on the level of attention and care that goes into even the most minute of things when it comes to food allergies. Since growing out of his food allergies, it seemed that he had forgotten what it takes to stay safe and aware at all times. He marveled at how eye opening it was to see all the variables to consider everywhere you go, even a Comicon. He asked me how I stay positive and safe, all things considered? I told him that much like a certain caped crusader, it takes vigilance, a utility belt packed with supplies for every food allergy need, and a positive attitude.

– 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

Eat, Drink and Be Scary: Allergen-Friendly Halloweens

As hinges creek from an unknown breeze, a door closes when no one was around, and the sound of footsteps follow you up the stairs. When spooky things are in the air and the sky goes dark…you know that Halloween is here! Happy haunts lurk behind every corner and pumpkins decorate porches as ghost’s float in nearby trees. As you can probably tell, I love this time of year for so many reasons, but Halloween is by far the biggest reason. What’s not to love about this wickedly ghoulish time of year? Well, for some of us there is a different chill in the air that has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins, and everything to do with treat bags and what tricks might be in them. Living with a food allergy during this time of year can be hard to navigate, so it’s important to be aware and look out for our allergens. From parties with friends, to having “trick or treaters” at your door, allergens can be anywhere and or hidden in so many unsuspecting things.

For those of us who are younger and out trick or treating, there are ways to stay safe and avoid your allergen(s). One example is waiting to eat until you get home as this will give you more time to read all food ingredient labels. If you’re handing out goodies, make sure you look for the speciality bags or badges that some children may have to indicate that they have allergies. If you plan to accommodate by handing out allergen-friendly goodies, consider putting a teal pumpkin out to show your support of food allergies, or a teal light in support of Food Allergy Canada’s new “Shine a Light” campaign. This also acts as an indicator to parents and kids that you have safe or non-food related treats. A small gesture goes a long way for kids who are out trick or treating and being conscious of allergens can make their night!

Dressing up is one of the best parts of Halloween. Each year my partner and I bet ourselves that we can out do our costumes from the previous year. Some years involve little to prepare while others take a good hour to create and paint. One important thing I’ve learned while living with food allergies at this time of year is to read everything, and I don’t just mean snacks. Make-up, fake blood, and other things that add a touch of flare to a costume may contain your allergens. Whether you’re applying zombie make-up or making sure your vampire comes equipped with blood fangs, make sure your allergens aren’t present in the product before application. I have found that anything from latex, or nut oils, to sulphites can be found in various makeups. Find something allergen-friendly and do a mark/spot test at least 24 hours before you plan to dress up in order to make your ghoulish appearance one to remember.

As you get older, Halloween becomes less about trick or treating and more about parties, scary movie marathons and other activities with our friends. But, much like going out and getting candy, our allergens can still be found at all of these events. One thing to keep in mind whether you’re binging your favourite horror movie series or at a party with friends is that it’s important to follow the same rules you normally follow in your everyday life. Read ingredient labels even if you’ve had that type of candy before. Some candy or chocolate bars could contain slightly different ingredients or have different labelling for Halloween since these smaller products may be processed in different facilities. If there are homemade goods, check with the chef/baker before eating. Ask about allergens, the risk of cross-contamination, etc., and only eat the foods that you’re 100% comfortable eating. A good alternative is to get your cauldron brewing and make your own treats to share with everyone so that you’re positive it’s allergen-friendly. You could also consider buying candy chocolates you’ve researched yourself and feel confident are  allergen-friendly.

As an adult at a Halloween party, you’re sure to run into some boos, wait no I mean booze. Pumpkin flavoured beers and other holiday treats are staples at most adult Halloween parties. Much like any other food, we need to make sure what we’re eating and drinking is allergen-friendly. If it’s a punch bowl, ask what fruits, flavours, and alcohols are involved. If it’s a shared/serve yourself bowl, make sure there is no risk of cross-contamination or see if you can get first dibs or a special cup/bowl just to be sure it’s allergen-friendly with no risk of cross-contamination. Allergen labelling on specialty beers and wines can be tricky, but I always try to call or email the company if I’m unsure of all the ingredients. A good trick for any party is to bring your own drinks, something you know is allergen-friendly and never leave your glass or drink unattended.

As we grow older it’s easy to lose the spirit of Halloween, dismissing it as a childish tradition. I think we need to get back to our childhood roots, tell each other ghost stories, eat candy together and dress up as our favorite characters and people. This year put out a teal pumpkin or light, have some allergen-friendly or non-food treats ready, grab a scary movie or have a party to get into the spooky spirit. Happy Halloween!

– Arianne K.

Traveling to PEI with Food Allergies

This summer I had the opportunity to travel to the beautiful province of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I) for the first time on a semi-family vacation. As an adult going out east was a bit difficult since I was recently diagnosed with a fresh water fish allergy that has crept over into almost all fish. After a few hives and some close calls, I decided I’d stay away from all fish until I had more tests completed and information received. So what better place to visit this summer then “The Land of Anne” and fresh seafood? Prepping for the trip, I can break down my experiences into three significant food allergy related areas: Road trips, great food and a real confidence boost for me regarding my food allergies.

Part One: On the Road Again

My family and I all piled into an already packed car to drive the 11-ish hours through four provinces, three bags of chips, two bridges and only one cell phone charger. I’m lucky the people in the car knew about my allergies before the trip but that didn’t stop us from encountering a few speedbumps along the way. As a group, we had an on-going group chat where we talked and planned activities. Here I was able to communicate all of my allergies and more importantly, I was able to talk about the risk of cross-contamination, and about how I will not eat anything if I can’t read the ingredients first or know where/how it was made. This was cause for a bit of back and forth regarding homemade baked goods and assurance that it would be safe. For me, I am just not comfortable eating something that I am not familiar with, especially on the road in a new place. Mandatory road snacks aside, the biggest issue on the road came late at night. Our first and only stop before reaching our destination was in the province of New Brunswick late at night. Arriving at the hotel we all had cabin fever from spending nine plus hours in the car. I foolishly assumed we’d be able to find somewhere allergen-friendly to grab food before turning in for the night. Well boy was I wrong! Everything was closed and what was open was a pizza restaurant that couldn’t distinguish between sesame seeds and what they called “flavour seeds.” So I choose to play it safe and not to eat there. At 1:00 am, my only option was a vending machine and breakfast bars that I had packed for the next morning. I realized I packed like an unprepared fool. I had no plan B and I paid for it. The next day when places were open, I was able to find food before the last leg of our trip, but it taught me an important lesson of not taking things like pizza places for granted. I made a mental note to pack sandwiches and other things to eat for our way home.

Part Two: Great Food

It can be tough when travelling to a place where your allergen is extremely prominent, especially if it’s a new allergen. I was diagnosed with an allergy to fresh water fish only a few years ago, and I am still not as comfortable with it as I am with my other allergens. Since my nervousness tends to get the better of me, I did some serious emailing and calling to find some allergen-friendly places to eat in P.E.I before we left home. Luckily, we were planning to stay in a cottage where we had the ability to cook the majority of our meals. But, I was still extremely excited to try some local brew houses and great cuisine, so I was both extremely happy to find incredible safe places to eat and disappointed that some places were not safe. The biggest thing I learned was trusting my gut and calling ahead. I am so glad I took the time to call restaurants ahead of time and even received some suggestions from my sister-in-law on where to go. I didn’t let it get me down when places weren’t allergen-friendly, and I certainly didn’t let it stop me from having a drink there or discouraging others from eating or visiting places where my allergens were present. All in all, I had amazing food both made by me and my travel companions, and in lovely restaurants.

Part Three: Confidence Boost

The most important thing I can say about my trip or any trip for that matter, is to stay positive about your food allergies and not let your limitations get you down. If you’re uncomfortable eating somewhere, let people know or refrain from eating and wait until you get back to an allergen-friendly spot. Always carry extra snacks or something when you’re on-the-go and most importantly, speak up about your allergies and let others know if you feel uncomfortable. Even if it may feel awkward to bring up or impede on your travel companions’ food and traditions, if you feel unsafe, speak up and let others know. The weight you feel lifted off your shoulders when you share your food allergy concerns with others is amazing because they’ll likely want to help you and keep you safe. It can be a real boost in confidence when you speak openly and honestly about your allergies, and I’m always grateful when the people around me care and want to listen as well.

I love to travel, whether its seeing our beautiful country or abroad, it’s amazing to get out of my comfort zone and gain a new perspective. Just because I have food allergies, doesn’t mean that I can’t try new foods, see new places, and enjoy myself. Having a plan, packing safe food, and maintaining a good attitude is a sure-fire way to have the best allergy-friendly vacation. Don’t hold yourself back; trust your gut and go out there and explore the world!

– Arianne K.

Eat, Drink, and be Married: The Allergen-Safety Guide to Weddings

It’s wedding season, and each year it seems there are more and more events to attend. From showers, joint stag and does, to respective bachelor/bachelorettes and of course the big day, your summer calendar can fill up pretty quickly. It’s no secret that a big part of these celebrations are the food and drinks. What can you do to stay safe while celebrating your friends’ or family’s happiest day yet? Do you bring a large purse filled with your own food? Do you say no thank you to every food passed under your nose even though you’re so hungry the ice sculpture is starting to look delicious? If you’re anything like me, weddings can be the happiest but also the most worrisome day when it comes to food allergies. I’ve been to a lot of weddings both as a guest and as part of the wedding party and I’ve figured out some sure-fire tips to a successful evening with the least amount of allergen-related issues.

Telling the bride and groom in advance: It seems like every invitation to a wedding these days has an online RSVP. It’s simple, easy to use and certainly saves everyone a lot of time. It’s also a great way to let the happy couple know beforehand about your food allergies. Usually there is a section to send a message which is where I like to let them know about my allergies. If you’re close with the couple, send them a personal message or give them a call and ask about the food being served. They can then easily relay the information on to the caterer and inquire about accommodations they offer. Letting everyone know beforehand can help quell your worries and ensure they are aware of your allergies during the planning process with the caterer.

Talking to the chef/venue: Once you’ve told the couple about your allergies, they might refer you to the venue or caterer of the event to get more information for your specific case. If this is the case, see if you can contact the chef or food and beverage manager to discuss your allergies, cross-contamination and their food preparation process. Find out if it’s a buffet or plated meal. If it’s a buffet, I always ask if it’s possible to have a plate straight from the kitchen instead, as this reduces the risk of cross-contamination at the buffet bar. I also inquire if the serving staff will be aware of my allergen beforehand or if I should discuss it with them the day of the wedding. It may seem like a bother to the bride or groom but offering to talk with the staff about your own allergies could help relieve some stress on both your parts.

Food on trays: During cocktail hour and even dinner, there is no end to food stacked high up on silver trays everywhere you look. As various hands pick, choose and mix the delicious treats you can’t help but wonder, where have their hands been as they sift through various trays. Much like buffets, when everyone can take their own food, there’s always a risk for cross-contamination. I try to stay conscious of this and make sure I let a server know about my food allergy and ask if I can have first dibs from the kitchen or receive a special plate all to myself.

What if it’s all unsafe? Here’s a rare situation, but what if you’ve told the couple in advance, called the venue, talked to a chef and you’re still unsure or not 100% confident about eating at this wedding. What do you do? Send your regrets and a nice gift in your place? I personally wouldn’t go that route. Food isn’t everything, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from celebrating with your friends and family. There are several things we can do to ensure our appetite is sated. One example is eating before you arrive. Attend the ceremony and leave for the dinner, then return for the reception or if you’re comfortable being around the food, come back during dinner so you can listen to the speeches. Another option is you can pack your own food. Here you can do one of two things: 1. Give it to the serving staff before they serve everyone else and request that they not take it out until it’s at your plate (to reduce the risk of cross-contamination). Or, you can keep your food with you in a car and grab it before the meal. It might seem awkward and you may feel embarrassed, but a quick conversation explaining your food allergies to your tablemates can easily turn into a fun icebreaker table topic!

Wedding season can be a hectic, stressful, budget breaking, amazing, happy crying, dance party, wonderful time. Our food allergies should never stop us from enjoying ourselves and celebrating two people who love each other. Like any other dining experience, if we take the time to talk to the right people and ask the right questions, we’ll feel safer and more confident in our dining choices, whatever they may be. Oh, and bring comfortable shoes, because who doesn’t like to dance at a wedding?

– Arianne K.

Honesty is the Best Policy with Food Allergies.

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.

  • Arianne K.