Category Archives: Allergies and Attitude

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.

Cycling Preparations with Food Allergies

Why I’m biking from Toronto to Ottawa:

Last fall, I realized I had spent yet another summer with a pretty new bike and not a lot of biking. I decided that I needed motivation to get on my bike, and the joy of commuting in the rain just wasn’t enough.

I wanted to finally plan a big bike trip. I spoke with my allergist about it who recommended that I plan a route that considers a 30-minute ambulance response time. I’m allergic to a variety of fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, black pepper, and sulphites, so that’s a pretty reasonable request. After meeting with my allergist, I then talked to a paramedic friend of mine, to see where I could bike while staying in range of hospitals and ambulances. “Why not just come on the Paramedic Ride?” he joked. But then we both realized that it was actually a pretty good idea! I’m happy to raise awareness and funds for a Paramedic Memorial, and I get a very safe bike trip in the deal! Plus, I figured that meeting more paramedic friends is not a bad idea!

How I got ready:

This trip was mostly complicated by how to transport my bicycle, and how to manage my food allergies. I started getting ready last fall, by borrowing a winter trainer. I didn’t get it set up until Christmas, but then I got into a rhythm of biking in the garage while watching Netflix. The sawdust in my garage was mildly itchy at times and going outside in the winter after training hard involved quite a brief cold spurt (if I had more space I’d definitely consider bringing the trainer indoors).

I quickly discovered that learning to bike long distances with allergies also involves learning to make sport snacks and foods. I read A LOT in an attempt to figure out how to make an electrolyte drink, and when I realized I was tired from lacking them, I started adding a little more salt and a lot more protein to my biking snacks. I would highly recommend The Feed Zone Portables cookbook for a variety of “from-scratch” sport food ideas.

In the end, I settled for mostly eating bananas, making cookies, and occasionally making granola bars. I gave up on the granola bars half way through the summer when my jaw started hurting because they were too chewy (oops) but I will definitely keep trying recipes. On the electrolyte front, there are a bunch of great DIY recipes, but most involve a few ingredients I am not yet allowed to consume. So I talked to my mom, a nurse in the remote town of Angola, and she explained that for a better-than-nothing solution she usually puts a spoon of sugar, two pinches of salt, and a bit of flavouring into a litre of water. I’ve translated that into 1 scant teaspoon of salt, 1 heaping teaspoon of sugar, and a good splash of homemade ginger syrup into 1.5 litres of water. It’s not perfect or ideal, but I reserve its use for days when it’s really hot or when I’m doing a long bike workout (30-km or more).

With all the food and snacks prepared, I have managed 2500-km of biking so far in 2018, with my longest ride being a 115-km trip around the small town of Carp, Ontario. I might have had a little too much fun in my last week of training, biking around the city on specific streets to “write” out the fundraising website!

 

What I brought with me:

Most importantly, I packed a couple epinephrine auto-injectors. I’d usually bring more for a big trip, but the Canada-wide Epi-Pen® shortage makes my pharmacy reluctant to pass out more than absolutely needed. That being said, I’m not concerned since we’re getting an ambulance escort for the event.

Because I didn’t want to give the ride organizers the extra hassle of arranging safe food for me, I decided I’d pack my own food. Bananas and oranges are pretty much guaranteed to be supplied at biking events, and if not, I can definitely stock up on them in any little grocery store I encounter along the way. I have a few simple snack foods like Nori (seaweed), rice crackers, chocolate chips, and homemade cookies.

That left me with the meal food left to plan, as well as figuring out how to cook it. I didn’t want to just eat sandwiches, and since this ride has the luxury of ambulance support vehicles, I planned a few frozen meals and a number of homemade dehydrated ones as well. To cook these, I brought a one-burner electric stove, a frying pan for at the hotel, and a Hot Logic Mini (basically a plug-in lunchbox which heats meals and keeps them warm; it’s going to be my secret to instant hot meals whenever I stop). The frying pan is for boiling water for breakfast and will act as a general backup for cooking. I know hotels have microwaves sometimes, but they can be a pain to clean up, and they heat things less evenly. Plus, I hear we’re often stopping for lunch in parks for this event.

Lastly, I also made sure to think through my drink situation. At home I drink tap water, because some water filters contain trace amounts of sulphites (including some bottled waters), which give me predictable hives. I know the ride provides bottled water, so I’m just going to fill up each day with the water that I feel most safe drinking.

So now I have allergen-safe food and water, my bicycle, the hotel is booked, and I’ve been biking A LOT all summer. I feel ready, I’ve landed in Toronto… here I go!

– Janice H.

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

 

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.