Category Archives: Allergies and Anxiety

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.

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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.

Tips and Tricks to Travelling with Allergies

From bag-checking and unexplained delays to getting lost in Paris’s extremely complicated transit system and your Airbnb © host cancelling your reservation 24 hours before you’re set to arrive, travelling can be a huge hassle. If you’re living with an allergy, travelling can raise health concerns that other people would never have to even think about before boarding a plane or packing for an adventure. Your allergies, however, shouldn’t prevent you from travelling. You can take steps to minimize your risk of having an allergic reaction while on your once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Before travelling, regardless of whether you’re going just south of the Canadian border or you are flying 12 hours across the Atlantic, you need to be prepared. Preparing in advance before travelling will make a positive difference in your allergy travel experience. Here are some allergy travel tips and tricks that you can follow to minimize risks:

1) Do your research beforehand – Find out about potential encounters with allergens at your destination before you leave. This can prevent potentially adverse reactions. If you’re allergic to peanuts, find out which local dishes could potentially contain them or could be cooked nearby. For example, the research I did before I travelled to Italy taught me that peanut oil is one-third the price of any other type of oil. This makes restaurants and bars much more likely to use peanut oil just to cut costs and save money. Knowing this, I knew that eating out in Italy would be particularly challenging for myself.

2) Get a kitchen when travellingAirbnb © saved me in Costa Rica in dodging fish and shellfish. Not only was getting a place with a kitchen a better alternative for me and my allergies, but my friends and I also saved a ton of money by cooking in our apartment. I also had much more peace of mind when I was cooking my own meals. The best part about cooking while travelling: finding a good grocery store! Going into town and grocery shopping with the locals is one of the coolest experiences because you’re literally engrossed in the everyday culture.

3) Pack protein bars & snacks Believe it or not, my carry-on bag is reserved almost exclusively for packing snacks/protein bars for my trip. Bringing your own snacks gives you options if you feel like you need a quick midday snack without hassle. Snacks are also great for when you return from a long day of travelling or hanging by the pool and you feel like munching on something comforting from home. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve craved my favourite chips and chocolate bars when relaxing on the beach.

4) Check epinephrine expiry dates – Bring multiple epinephrine auto-injectors when travelling. Check expiry dates well in advance leaving you time to get new ones before you depart. You do not want to travel with expired epinephrine auto-injectors!

5) Call your airline before your flight – Alert your airline before getting on a plane about your allergies. Some airlines hand out complimentary peanut/nut snacks to passengers while flying, so it’s important to alert the attendants of your allergies beforehand, and become familiar with their allergy policies in advance.

6) Alert others about your allergy – Always travel with a buddy and make sure your buddy is aware of your allergies before travelling with them. When I’m travelling with friends or family, I make sure every person I’m travelling with is trained on how to use my EpiPen®.

7) Translate common words for your allergy before dining out – Do you know how to say egg in Spanish? Peanut in Italian? Shellfish in French? Knowing the words for your allergens in the language of the country you’re travelling will make it easier to identify potential allergens on menus.

8) Bring allergy cards in the language of the country you are travelling to – If travelling somewhere where you can’t easily communicate and can’t speak the language, it’s important to bring allergy cards identifying your allergens in the language of the country your travelling to. Give this to your waiter as soon as you arrive at the restaurant, and the card will usually do a much better job at explaining your allergies than you could ever do. I’ve literally watched my waiters read my card with the widest eyes, and then ask me if they can keep it so that they can show all their managers and co-workers because it’s literally the wildest thing they’ve ever seen. Tip: bring multiple cards!

So there you have it folks, some tips and tricks to travelling as stress-free as possible with food allergies. Though these tips are supposed to minimize risks, accidents can still happen so it’s important to be prepared with a game plan in case you do have an allergic reaction. Write down the emergency number of the country you’re staying in and research the closest hospital. I want you to be as prepared as possible whether something does or does not happen. Happy travelling!

– Giulia C.