Category Archives: Allergies and Attitude

Addressing the “Allergy” in the Room: Communicating Your Allergy to Others

Going out for dinner, whether on a date, with colleagues from work, or with your closest friends, you are likely to experience some common elements: loud music, clinking plates/utensils, crowded tables, and multiple wait staff running around, each server striving to satisfy the multiple tables under their supervision.

Sometimes in this environment, it is easy to feel anxious or feel like it is a burden to mention your food allergy to the wait staff (or to the company you are with) when you go to order your meal, because it is one more thing they need to worry about. Growing up with a severe peanut/tree nut allergy, I’ve struggled with how to handle situations like this. As a child, speaking to any “stranger” is scary enough, let alone to inform them of a possible life-threatening reaction to occur under their supervision. It took me a long time to find my confidence and even still, it is not always easy. However, the reality is, we should all feel safe going out to eat and be able to enjoy an anxiety-free meal with the company we are with.

OK, so let’s say you are now at a table with friends and the waiter is making their way around the table taking orders, and you are next up. Instead of being anxious and overthinking everything in your head, start thinking about what questions you can ask the waiter to ensure you feel comfortable eating there. For example, you can ask questions about food preparation and the risk of cross-contamination to prove that you are quite serious about the safety of your food. Or you can ask what their process is for handling tables with allergies. It is important to communicate that this is a life-threatening allergy; this is not an intolerance or a preference, this is an allergy. Another tactic is to get in front of the issue by pulling the server aside before ordering and asking them what dishes are safe or easy to prepare to accommodate someone with a severe food allergy. You will find that most of the time the servers are educated to handle this scenario and more than happy to offer recommendations as well as assist in finding you a meal that you will safely enjoy. If there is ever an instance that the response you receive is not entirely confident, I would recommend speaking with the chef themselves or choose somewhere else to eat since nothing is worth the risk of having an allergic reaction.

This above scenario not only applies for the wait staff, but also for the people with whom you are enjoying the meal. Some people are not accustomed to dealing with food allergies, or never grew up in an environment with someone that had a severe allergy. Have you ever been out for lunch with a friend and they decide to order a dish with the allergen you are severely allergic to? How do you address this without hindering their dining experience and avoid the rest of the lunch being uncomfortable? I have been in this situation and to be honest, the first time I definitely could have handled it better. I was extremely uncomfortable and anxious knowing that the allergen I have been conditioned to avoid for the majority of my life is in the dish right beside mine. However, once you confront the issue the first time, the rest is a breeze. One possible solution is to simply ask your friend to slide to another seat at the table to minimize the cross-contamination risk. Allergies are so common now and being able to speak about them with your friends, family or the waiter should never feel uncomfortable.

So next time you go out for a bite to eat, check the menu beforehand, read the reviews, and make sure your company and the waiter are informed of any food allergies. This is your safety, your life, your allergy and most importantly, it is YOUR responsibility to communicate.

– Phil Greenway

 

Advertisements

Required Reading: Remembering to Read the Label, Even When You’re Comfortable…

Everyone always tells you, never visit the grocery store when you’re hungry. With a rumble in your stomach, everything on the shelves can start to look delicious. From chips, to cookies, to mashed potatoes, you’d buy just about anything to sate the hungry in your stomach. Satisfying your “hangrier” self can be a bit tricky when you have multiple food allergies. A grocery store can suddenly become a library of required reading with a hefty test at the end before you can go home and eat.

With so many labels to read and so much fine print to understand, it’s easy to get complacent and glance over ingredients with glazed eyes. Sometimes we can become too comfortable when it comes to brands or foods we’ve known and used for some time. My thought process in a store has bounced between, “it’s always been safe,” or “I’ve never had an issue with their other products,” and regrettably even, “this looks good I’ll read it later.” I’ve been guilty of making the mistake of throwing a commonly used brand product into my basket without reading the label, assuming it will be fine. However, a recent experience with a familiar brand taught me to take the few extra seconds no matter how busy I am, and always read the ingredients no matter what.

A crumbling experience: There is a brand of crackers I’ve trusted for as long as I can remember. Normally when I go grocery shopping I read every boxed or canned item I put in my basket. This routine started by my mom who would let me read ingredient labels after her and would quiz me about what’s safe, what isn’t and why. But that day, for a myriad of reasons and silly excuses I grabbed a box of crackers, a new flavour that looked good and put it in my basket. I went on my way busily preparing for a potluck the next day. For some reason, I didn’t even think twice about reading the ingredients for the crackers in my basket. I assumed, like all other flavours from the brand, that it was safe, and you know what they say when you assume… I got the other items to make a yummy dip to pair with my box of crackers and went on my way.

It wasn’t until the next day when I was plating the crackers, mere minutes before my guest arrived that I noticed something odd about these crackers. On the outside, they seemed fine but once cracked open there were seeds, sesame seeds to be exact, something I am allergic to and something that had never been on or in this brand of crackers before. I was dumbfounded and frankly disappointed with myself for not reading the ingredients list beforehand. After that night, and narrowly avoiding a reaction, I promised myself no matter how comfortable or familiar, I will always read every label and ingredient before I buy anything.

I was able to avoid a reaction that night but found myself wondering how many times I may have put myself at risk in the past because I forgot to read ingredients or was overly comfortable with a brand. As we get older, day-to-day errands can be overwhelming and sometimes reading every label in the grocery store can seem like a task you seriously just don’t want to do. When you’re stressed and hungry, you want to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. Even when we’re in a hurry though, it’s important to take an extra 10 seconds and read labels to ensure the foods you’re buying are safe. I always try and think of it along the same lines as the precautions I would take when dining out. I would personally never eat anywhere without researching, calling ahead and always ensuring the kitchen is aware and capable to handle cross-contamination. The same rules and precautions should be applied to our kitchens and shopping experiences.

As an allergy community we’re always looking for new and safe brands to add to our pantries. If we take the time, do some research and find safe products, we’ll have a better, and safer cooking experience. Creating culinary treats can challenge us to experiment in the kitchen in the best ways, so don’t let a little label reading stop you from cooking up a delicious meal.

Bon appetit!

– 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.

Awareness for Commonly Misused Allergy Phrases

Summer is right around the corner, and everyone who loves camping, hiking, or enjoying a refreshing beverage on a patio with friends should be excited. Since I love camping, let’s set the scene on a Friday afternoon in the grocery store gathering some food before some friends and I head up to a favourite campsite for a weekend of s’mores, fishing, swimming, and canoeing. I have a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, and as I walk by the pastry section in the grocery store, my friend says “Oh, we shouldn’t get those donuts, that’ll kill you. Let’s get chips for snack instead”. This is a common scenario that I have encountered on a regular basis so let’s talk about it.

***

I also love patio season, so here’s another scenario. Let’s say some friends and I are enjoying the sun on a patio, looking at the drink menu. I also have an allergy to raw pineapple, which has been difficult for me because I grew into it. I had been able to enjoy this, my favourite fruit, up until a few months ago when I discovered through a food allergy test, that I had developed a life-threatening allergy. As we’re looking at the drink menu, one of my friends says aloud, “Oh, look at the cocktail selection. You can’t have that one, or that one, or that one, or even that one. Man, you can’t have anything!”

***

These two situations can happen all too often to an adult with allergies, and to an outsider, these phrases may appear harmless. But let’s say you recently experienced an anaphylactic allergic reaction where you had to use your epinephrine auto-injector, called 9-1-1, struggled to breath, and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment. If someone refers to one of your allergens by saying “that will kill you”, they may think they are making a harmless statement. If you’re like me, however, and have suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction where you may have thought your situation was life-threatening, hearing something say “that’ll kill you” may bring about a strong emotional response. Like me, you may remember the fear you had when you weren’t able to breathe, or the relief you felt when the fire fighters or paramedics rushed into your house to save you, or the comfort you felt when you came home from the hospital. It is important for those with – and especially without – a life-threatening allergy to be cognizant of the wording they use when describing someone’s allergen.

The same goes for the phrase, “oh, you can’t have that”. This may seem even more benign, but to an individual with an allergy who is with a group of friends enjoying a food that they cannot enjoy, they may feel ostracized or left out. As someone who developed allergies as an adult who had previously enjoyed foods that I cannot have anymore, I often feel sad to hear others comment on my shortcomings in this way. Although I do appreciate someone trying to look out for me, there’s another way to go about it.  A way that doesn’t single me out or make me feel uncomfortable.

If you are an adult with allergies, you may have experienced these scenarios before. You may not have noticed that these phrases were said, or you might have experienced a strong emotional response, bringing you back to a severe reaction. It’s important to be able to balance your appreciation for their concern and your annoyance at their possible ignorance to the gravity of what they’re saying. A possible response is, “thanks for bringing it up, but please don’t use that wording.” Be honest with your friends and let them know how you really feel. They likely didn’t even know their words had such an impact. Slowly, let’s all change the landscape of misused allergy phrases.

– Fraser K.

Discussions with Significant Others about Allergies

As an adult with allergies, I understand that it’s important to ensure that individuals close to me are informed about my allergies in order to avoid reactions. I recently grew into some food allergies that I consider strange, and when I told my family members about these allergies, it was a fairly straightforward conversation. I simply told them what I was allergic to, what could happen if I ingest these allergens, and what to do in case I have a reaction. They asked some questions such as: “How much do you have to eat to have a reaction?”, “Will you have a reaction by smelling the allergen or by touching it?” and “Can we still have the allergen in the house?”. I provided them with answers and we went about our day. I didn’t feel any pressure from them and I wasn’t worried that they would abandon me as a brother or son because I was confident that they understood what I had shared.

This conversation can be a little more challenging when discussing allergies with someone I’m out on a first date with. There’s been times when I had limited options of where to go out for dinner because of my allergy, and I sometimes thought, what if I’m going on a date with a person who is a big foodie? If you’re like me, you might be afraid that they may see you as someone with baggage or that dating you would be too much of a challenge. Let’s be clear on something I’ve learned from experience: if someone doesn’t want to maintain a romantic relationship with you just because you’re an adult with allergies, that person likely isn’t worth your time. Nevertheless, it can be challenging to discuss allergies within a new romantic relationship.

Scenario One: First Date Jitters (What if they don’t like me because of my allergies?)

Here’s a hypothetical scenario that I will use to teach a lesson that I learned through experience. Jack has food allergies and is out on a first date with Lisa. They find that they are really hitting it off. They find that they have many things in common and their personalities complement each other. As the night closes, Jack walks Lisa to a cab, and she leans in to kiss him goodnight. Unfortunately, he’s unsure if she’s eaten one of his allergens during the day, and he knows that it could be risky to kiss. So, he pulls away, leaving her in an awkward limbo. Jack thinks about two options: he can sprint in the opposite direction, never to see her again, or he can stop to explain to Lisa that he has a life-threatening food allergy and check to see what she ate before they move in for a safe kiss.

I’ve been in this situation before and find that it is beneficial to causally bring up my food allergies to a new date early in the date to avoid this awkward confrontation. If your allergy doesn’t come up in conversation, or you don’t want to centre the attention on it during the date, then you may have to turn away from a friendly kiss in order to remain safe in the moment. Don’t worry about how awkward it may feel. Just stay strong and explain the situation to your date. They’ll probably feel relieved that the reason you didn’t want to kiss them wasn’t because you didn’t like them. This is a truthful situation of the classic “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Scenario Two: Dinner Party (How do I navigate a group setting with an overprotective partner?)

But let’s say that Jack had discussed his food allergy with his new date Lisa, and he avoided the awkward pull-back ahead of time. They’ve enjoyed several new dates together. Let’s discuss another situation that can commonly come up in a relationship where one of the people has a severe food allergy. Jack and his new girlfriend Lisa are going to a dinner party. About 10 to 15 people are expected to be in attendance, and everyone is responsible for bringing an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert. Jack and Lisa bring an allergy-friendly dish so that no matter what, he has a safe option. Jack and Lisa arrive early to catch up with their friends who are hosting. Other friends begin arriving, bringing their food in and setting it up on the counter, or putting it in the oven to keep warm. Jack notices that as guests arrive, Lisa asks each one of them about the ingredients and preparation methods for each dish. She’s not subtle, and she even begins to loudly scold guests for bringing dishes that aren’t safe for Jack to eat. Jack knows that Lisa only wants the best for him, but it is also clear to him that she hasn’t encountered a severe allergy with past relationships, and he thinks she may be taking it over the top. What would you do if you were Jack?

If I was Jack, I would talk to Lisa in private, thanking her for her diligence, but explaining that not everyone has to cater to my allergies, as I am comfortable eating the dish we safely prepared and brought to the dinner. I find that this discussion with your significant other about the accommodation of your food allergy at social settings is important ahead of time in order to avoid inadvertently blaming others for not accommodating an allergy. Although Lisa was being protective and this can be appreciated by anyone with a food allergy, there are more delicate ways to approach this situation that I would be more comfortable with.

Scenario Three: Meeting the Family (How and when should I bring up my allergy?)

Jack and Lisa are getting along very well, and after a few weeks, Jack brings Lisa home to meet his family. Jack’s parents meet Lisa and they enjoy a lovely evening together. Lisa has planned for Jack to meet her family and invites him over for brunch one Saturday. Jack is greeted warmly by Lisa’s parents. Everyone sits down on the patio to enjoy a lovely brunch, but Jack notices that his allergen is on the table and everyone is using the same serving spoon for everything. Jack knows that the food has been cross-contaminated, and that he shouldn’t eat anything in order to avoid an allergic reaction. Jack sips his coffee nervously, trying to think of how to approach this.

It can be difficult to bring up your allergies to a significant other’s family after they’ve already served you food. You don’t want to seem rude by refusing, especially if you’re meeting them for the first time. However, it is important to remember that first and foremost, I would never eat cross-contaminated food. You can pretend that you’re not hungry, or you have a stomach ache, or even pretend you have a phone call and make an exit. These tactics will probably work, but they won’t work every time, and you don’t want to start off a relationship with your significant other’s parents by lying. The best approach is to bring up your allergy calmly (preferably before the actual meal), explain what might happen if you eat your allergen in order to convey the severity of it to them, and reassure the family that it’s not their fault. Or make sure that your partner explains your allergies in detail to their parents ahead of time. This can be challenging but it’s better that is happens sooner, rather than later.

Dating is fun, it’s exciting, and sometimes it’s scary, especially with food allergies, but keep some of these scenarios in mind the next time you hit the town for a date and it will go smoothly!

– Fraser K.

Exploring Colombia with Food Allergies

Travelling to a foreign country offers an exciting opportunity to immerse oneself in a new culture, to meet new people and to take on new adventures. Before one begins their trip, there is always research and planning that must be done.  This includes trying to foresee and account for any difficulties that may arise when navigating in a new destination. For anyone travelling with allergies, the added challenge is planning how to stay safe and avoid any food allergy reactions— while also not going hungry. My own experience planning for and travelling to the South American country of Colombia was no different.

To add some context to my planning and actual travels; my trip to Colombia was a two-and-a-half-week adventure trip that involved lodging in hostels tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains as well as trekking five days through the jungle to reach the famous site of “the Lost City”. I also spent time touring cultural hotspots including Cartagena and Medellin and finished off by exploring Colombia’s coffee plantation region. While my trip proved to be an amazing adventure that balanced hiking the great outdoors while also experiencing and learning about Colombia’s unique culture, I still had to go through certain precautions to ensure I stayed safe during my vacation!

Planning for My Trip

When preparing for a trip to any foreign location, I always extensively research the country. This includes researching the languages spoken, popular destinations and sights to see. Because of my allergies, I also always research what common food dishes are popular and what ingredients are commonly used in the country. Being allergic to wheat, eggs and peanuts, I was happy to discover when researching about Colombia that one of their popular food items is a type of corn bread called “arepas” that are naturally gluten/egg free and prepared in numerous ways. Having been to Peru last year and having fallen in love with ceviche (raw fish cooked in lime juice and spices), I was also excited to find out that Colombian styled ceviche is another very popular dish in the country. While this sort of research doesn’t eliminate the risk of encountering an allergen while travelling, I always find it helpful to be knowledgeable of a country’s food traditions before trying to navigate one of their menus.

When preparing for my five-day trek to the Lost City, I signed up with a trekking group and was able to contact the trekking company via email and ensured that they could accommodate my allergies with the food served on the trek. (I also sent two follow up emails before leaving for my trip just as an extra double check to ensure they didn’t overlook my food restrictions!)

Further preparations for my trip involved notifying the airline that I was flying with about my allergies. When travelling, I also always ensure that I have my “allergy travel cards.” These cards are the size of a business card and say in a specified language (in this case Spanish) what I am allergic to along with pictures of my allergens. I also have cards that state “I am having an allergic reaction and need to be taken to an English-speaking hospital. This is not a card I ever want to use, but crucial to have in case of emergencies! I’ve found different companies offer versions of these travel cards and can be ordered online. When planning, I also ensured that my auto-injectors were not expired and that multiple were packed.

Travelling in Colombia

When travelling in Colombia, I found that having my “allergy travel cards” was the most useful and effective way to communicate my allergies since I am not fluent in Spanish.  These cards were concise and provided a visual clue to servers about my food restrictions. It was almost amusing to see their first quizzical look on their face when I passed them my allergy card and then this look change to disbelief that I couldn’t eat all the foods listed on the card. Despite that, I found every restaurant to be quite accommodating and understanding. I also used my broken Spanish to try and order alternate food options with my usual “go-to” being some form of arepa.

For snacks on-the-go or while I was hiking, I had pre-packed granola bars that I brought from Canada or would buy bananas or avocados from local fruit stands— you would be amazed at how long an avocado stays ripe in a hiking pack!  While on my five-day trek to the Lost City, each night I stayed in hiking refuges, and having touched based with the trekking company beforehand, I had very few issues finding food that I could eat. That, combined with the size of portions that were given out, I never went hungry!

Overall, while I had to undergo some extra planning and exercise certain precautions while travelling to Colombia, I found I was still able to experience the best that this country had to offer in terms of destinations to see, activities to do and people to meet, all while staying safe and avoiding my allergens.

Feel free to comment below with your own experiences of travelling abroad and staying allergy safe as well post any questions you may have about preparing for your own travels in the future!

For more tips on travelling with food allergies, visit Food Allergy Canada’s travel section.

– Caitlyn P.

Food Allergy Awareness at the Office

In the past calendar year, I have started two new jobs in office settings. In both cases, I tried to initiate conversations about my food allergies as early as possible without overwhelming my new co-workers. Instead of providing a number of tips, I am going to share a couple of stories from my experiences and hopefully you will be able to draw lessons from them to apply to your new job.

My first new job was a fresh, new start with new co-workers after nearly 4 years at a different company. With this fresh start, I wanted to be diligent with my food allergy awareness and education. I met with the Human Resources Manager and discussed the severity of my peanut and tree nut allergy. Rather than demand an allergen-safe environment, I shared my general management strategies with her and assured her that I will practice safe eating procedures. I quickly learned at orientation that the company provided snacks and had a pantry that was always well-stocked for the employees. After meeting with the HR Manager, I read the ingredients of all provided snacks and made a mental note of which snacks were safe for me, and which were not. I then cleaned my new office cubicle (including the keyboard and mouse) with soap and water to reduce the risk of cross-contamination from previous usage. The company itself was very accommodating of my food allergy and my manager even went so far as buying only peanut/tree nut safe snacks so that I would feel more comfortable in our work space. Pretty cool eh? This experience just goes to show how something as simple as being open about your food allergy can open so many doors.

In my second new job, I took the same approach and told my new manager about my food allergies on day one. The topic came up at lunch, which was a great time to break the ice on a topic that can make some people feel quite awkward. She was luckily also very accommodating and made sure to send an email to the rest of my new team to inform them of my food allergies. The tricky part about this job is that it revolves around teaching others about good health strategies, which includes healthy eating. For the most part, tree nuts are an easy snack suggestion as they are a great source of healthy fats and nutrients. My challenge moving forward will be to ensure I implement safe food preparation practices on my own since I cannot expect everyone to avoid these snacks just for me (especially when my team and I promote tree nuts as a healthy snack!).

One take home message that I’ve learned through these experiences is that being open with an employer can be extremely beneficial to ensuring my safety, but the onus is ultimately on me to keep myself safe at the end of the day. As long as I keep my immediate working environment clean, have my auto-injectors accessible, wash my hands before eating, and let others know about my food allergy, I can feel confident that I have done all I can do to feel comfortable and focused when I am at the office.

– Dylan B.