Category Archives: Allergies and Anxiety

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.

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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.

 

Adventuring with an Allergy

I love camping.

Not the kind where you drive your car to a busy park, with running water and giant RVs. I love the kind of camping where you stuff 5 days of food into a bag, with a tent and a compass, and take your canoe out into the wilderness.

This past fall I tried my first solo camping trip! I took a rented canoe, my dog, and headed out for five days in the backcountry. No electricity, no communication, nothing.

I was paddling along a gorgeous, calm lake, I had the whole place to myself, when it occurred to me that if anything happened I would be totally alone. Camping can be dangerous I guess. Then a second thought occurred to me, what if the last person who rented this canoe was eating peanuts? Are my hands covered in peanut residue? Is that even a thing?

In the city, I find I can easily forget about my allergy. It’s second nature to avoid certain restaurants and groceries, I wash my hands often and I know where the nearest hospital is. But out there in the woods I had a new challenge, could I do this on my own? Was I missing risks that I would never encounter at home?

Luckily for me this thought, like all others, was short lived and I was able to get back to enjoying the solitude, and majesty of nature. For me this was a great reminder about life lines and vigilance. It’s easy to take my safety for granted, but it’s never a given. For me to enjoy these adventures I have to spend a little time in advance getting ready. I talked to a pharmacist and my doctor, and made sure I was prepared for an emergency. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure.

If I’m being honest, I did get a little paranoid and washed my canoe paddle at my first camp site, so I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

Having a food allergy is never going to stop me from having adventures. This trip with my dog was one of the most peaceful weeks I’ve ever experienced.

If you want to have a great time, don’t let an allergy stop you. Prepare in advance and get out there and enjoy!

– Jason B.

 

 

Cross-Contamination at the Grocery Store

Eating out can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially when you have multiple food allergies. As with most food allergic people, I find comfort in making my own food in my own house as I am confident that I have a clean food preparation space and that the food I make will be allergen-safe. If eating in and doing your own meal preparation is in your wheel house, have you ever thought about cross-contamination at the grocery store? It’s a real threat and definitely something to consider when shopping.

I bet this is something many of us notice but never really acknowledge. The truth is, this can be a big risk! Take for example, the photos I took below. In the first photo, I was about to buy some fresh asparagus for dinner when I stopped and saw the pistachio bags directly beside. A few of the bags had tears in the packaging, likely from a stock employee accidentally cutting them with their box cutter to open the box of pistachio bags. The display shelves were basically touching so how could I guarantee there was no cross-contamination? I couldn’t. In the second photo, I wanted to buy some figs but there were open containers of chestnuts, walnuts, and assorted nuts directly beside and even touching the fig packaging. In the third photo, the fresh fruit I wanted to buy were directly beside an open container of tree nuts. 

If these examples make you a little nervous about grocery shopping, my advice would be to harness that energy to help you focus on reducing your risk of cross-contamination. Here are some simple tips I use:

  • Try to stay away from produce directly beside your allergen if it is loose and unpackaged.
  • Bring your own bags from home (reduce, reuse, recycle!)
  • Always bag your produce – think about all the food that travels over the check-out conveyor belt…it’s not worth the risk of cross-contamination at that stage either.
  • Always wash your produce with soap and water whenever possible.

In the majority of cases, grocery shopping will be a safe venture for obtaining allergen-friendly foods. My objective with this blog post was simply to raise the awareness of risks involved in daily life that many of us overlook. Hopefully shedding light on this subject will help all of us become a little safer with the management of our food allergies. Good luck and let me know if you have had a similar experience at the grocery store!

– Dylan B.

Tips for Dealing with Online Food Allergy Bullying

We all expect as adults that the days of being bullied or pushed around by someone were over, right? We’ve left the playground behind, we no longer worry about being invited to the popular kid’s birthday and we can simply walk away and never see that person again. We’ve spent years cultivating a group of friends from all walks of life that lift us up when we’re down, support us in our endeavours, and have even helped move us a couch or two.

But bullying may still occur as adults, especially as new Internet platforms arise and new forms of communication are born. We have to face it, people may use these platforms for bullying. For us as adults, instead of taking place in the school yard or lunch room bullying takes place in the seedy under belly of the internet and comment sections on social media. Written and expressed by people we’ve never met before but have plenty of opinions on our lifestyles. It’s simple to say ignore it, stay away and don’t engage with “trolls,” but this is easier said than done; especially when these types of situations creep up into our feeds and news stories grabbing our attention and prying at our curiosity to know how the general public thinks about food allergies.

Whether it’s stories about passengers being taken off flights for a food allergy, patrons having their allergies dismissed by restaurants, or parents being villainized in schools, bullying can still happen: Vile comments and cruel statements made from behind a keyboard in the shadows of anonymity are bound to pop up be shared and commented on. It’s a seemingly endless cycle. It’s an odd feeling, being attacked or bullied at our age especially within the confines of our own home and from someone behind a computer screen far away. How can you fight against a bully you’ve never met; how can you speak up for yourself when the comments are shared online repeatedly by thousands of people? This kind of bullying is magnified when anyone, anywhere can partake in these conversations with no evident real-world repercussions. There are important things to remember in any bullying situation:

Talk to someone: The internet is a big place, and even though there are people who disagree with you there are even more people who agree (especially when it comes to food allergies). Find a community who understands what you’re going through whether it be social media groups, webpages or likeminded comments. Talk to these people about how these situations make you feel. You’d be surprised how a simple kind gesture or comment can change your perspective.

It’s not your fault: We’re all brought up differently, have different perspectives, life experiences and outlooks; no two people are exactly alike. Just because someone doesn’t understand airborne allergens or cross-contamination doesn’t mean they’re evil or dumb, it just means they don’t live with it or have any frame of reference. Enlightening someone who isn’t aware can be a great thing to do. Being bullied is never your fault and it certainly isn’t right to hone in on a single feature you possess, like an allergy, and no one deserves to feel bad about a medical condition.

Don’t engage. But if you do, respond intelligently, not rapidly: If you feel up to responding to a negative comment, don’t stoop to their level. Never insult or sling mud; you’re just adding gas to a fire. Take a breath, do some research and respond maturely with facts and always keep a level head. Try inputting positive remarks and creating a dialogue where you can explore the topic together and find common ground, otherwise we’re no better.

And if all else fails…

Stop and Drop: If the comments and bullying is truly insulting or degrading and becomes harmful: Stop, save the evidence, then remove yourself from the situation, block the person or if it is really out of line, report them.

Bullying is never right or a good idea and it isn’t funny or fair. You should never be made to feel bad about your food allergies or anything else for that matter. The internet is a big place, you’re bound to encounter people or groups who will disagree with you, but you can always find people who will support you, have healthy discussions with, and give you a different perspective.  Social media and mass communication has brought us closer together and allowed us to share across the planet; let’s not let it tear us apart.

-Arianne K.

Magic words to get anyone to take your allergies seriously

In relation to my peanut and tree nut allergy

I am a 27-year-old adult with life threatening allergies and I carry my epinephrine auto-injector everywhere I go. When I’m out with friends or family at restaurants it is very important that I communicate the severity of my allergies to servers and to the chef(s) or management. It is more and more common that restaurants and pubs ask about food allergies before patrons need to mention them, which is accommodating and proactive. Still, it is vital to impress upon the wait staff the severity of the allergies, so the chef can comment on whether or not various meals or parts of the kitchen are allergen friendly. As well, it is not only when I am out on the town when I find the need to mention the seriousness of my allergies; it can also be when I am at a friend’s house for dinner, or even at my own house with my family.

It was not easy learning how to broach the subject of my allergies. I recall visiting a friend who had put out a vegetable platter to which I had to politely refuse. She asked why, and I explained my allergy. Following up, she asked what happens when I eat raw fruits and vegetables, to which I said “I die”. The whole room fell silent, and I realized that everyone either thought I was being over dramatic or that my allergy was so severe that I couldn’t even be in the same area code as an allergen. I then explained that my body may go into what is called “anaphylactic shock”, and helped them understand the severity of my allergy better. This was when I learned that there is a fine line between over-dramatizing allergies and downplaying them. At a restaurant or a friend’s house it is important not to scare people with the thought of a life-threatening allergy, but it could even be less effective to undercut their severity.

I have learned that there are two or three phrases, which I commonly use now, that portray the quality of my allergies without creating a panicked environment: “life-threatening”, “anaphylactic”, and “serious” allergies.

Surprisingly, another method that has worked effectively to communicate the danger of my allergies is simply having my auto-injector visible on the table. It is nearly a habit of mine that when I sit down at a desk or at a restaurant table, I empty my pockets of my wallet, cell phone, keys, and auto-injector. I do this for comfort and to avoid losing one of these valuable items in the crack of a seat or onto the floor. One time at a restaurant a server noticed this ritual, and immediately asked me what I was allergic to. They seemed concerned to obtain accurate information too. This method worked unusually well, but personally I don’t like being the centre of attention, so I have stopped doing this as often.

In relation to my other allergies

I have found different experiences with my common allergies compared to my uncommon allergies. I have a severe form of what’s called “Oral Allergy Syndrome”, where my body confuses fruits and vegetables with tree pollen. Many people have an allergy to one or two fruits or vegetables and when they eat these, they experience a mild throat irritation or scratching. I have a severe form of oral allergy syndrome and when my mouth and throat are exposed to any raw fruit and any raw vegetables, there is profound swelling which can lead to airway compromise. Peanut, tree nut, gluten, and milk allergies are fairly well publicized in the media, and I find restaurants usually understand that these are serious. Raw fruits and vegetables on the other hand are less commonly life-threatening allergies, so it always comes as a surprise to my server. I usually avoid fruit and vegetables in a restaurant because servers invariably mention, “How cooked do they have to be.” Since this is so often subjectively interpreted, I don’t risk it. It is not always known whether or not they understand the severity of these more uncommon allergies. I’m sure this is not limited to my allergies, but other adults with other less common allergies as well. It is important to approach these allergens as you would any common allergens when communicating them to others and understand that there may be some surprise and discussion about these allergens.

Overall, a useful method to ensure the severity of an allergen is communicated effectively, I remember to use a calm demeanor, language such as “serious” or “life-threatening”, and avoid dramatizing or underplaying an allergy.

– Fraser K.