Category Archives: Allergies and Attitude

Finding the Middle Ground

Compromise. It can be an intimidating word especially if you’re stubborn like I am. It may not be a natural skill but it is one we all need to learn, especially when we’re dealing with food allergies. Having a food allergy or knowing someone with one, we often find ourselves in situations where we need flex this skill and find the best and safest solution for your food allergy. Each day new situations arise where we need to find a sort of mediation that leaves everyone feeling satisfied. For me and my food allergies I find myself using the concept of compromise in the vein of finding alternative, but always safe solutions in regards to my food allergies in three specific situations. Pertaining to life with a food allergy, the definition of compromise is not narrowed to mean giving up or exposing yourself to dangerous situations.  It means adjusting the situation to find an outcome in which all parties are safe, comfortable and happy regarding their food allergies.

  1. So you’ve decided to bake or cook:

I have come to realize that if you didn’t grow up with food allergies or know someone with one, it can be an incredibly foreign experience, especially when baking and cooking. When cooking with a food allergy, I’m always trying to ensure my safety, whether it’s reading ingredients or ensuring my food hasn’t come into contact with any allergens (from shared utensils/foods to “may contain” labels). Extra attention needs to be taken to ensure food is safe and there is an element of compromise with this, but that doesn’t mean compromising safety in regards to your food allergies. It is important to remember that you should never cook with or ingest ingredients that contain or may contain your allergens. Substituting or compromising in this situation means finding creative solutions and ingredients (that do not contain yours or any other allergens) and finding fun ways to bake with them that ensure it is safe for all food allergies. There are so many substitutes available now to accommodate most food allergies, you’re sure to find a way to cook without ingredients like eggs, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts and more. It’s just a matter of being open and honest about your allergens and helping everyone understand why they need to be avoided certain ingredients. Luckily the word compromise can take many forms, and it doesn’t mean you need to compromise on taste or safety when it concerns your allergens in the kitchen.

  1. So you’ve decided to dine out:

There can be a lot of pressure when dining out with a food allergy. If you’re dining out on the fly, it can be stressful to find a safe place near you that also sates your dining companions and fulfills your allergen needs. When eating somewhere new or dining out in general, we have to help our friends and family understand that we can’t just eat anywhere. Precautionary measures need to take place before we sit down for a meal and both parties need to be willing to compromise to make this happen. This may look like a few different things, such as:

  1. Calling a restaurant and asking to speak to a manager or chef about their food allergy policies.
  2. Going somewhere and for drinks only.
  3. Bringing our own food to a restaurant, if permitted.
  4. Finding safe places to eat that may not be the cuisine you were hoping for.
  5. Choosing a dish that does not contain your friend’s allergen (if this is your personal preference).

A great way to avoid these awkward situations and find the best outcome for all is to talk before. Sit down, text, or call your friends/family and let them know why you are concerned, as well as where you feel safe eating, where you don’t, what makes you uncomfortable in a restaurant, and what you feel comfortable doing. This way you can, as a team, work out a plan that suits everyone’s needs and we all come away feeling like we achieved or got something out of it. The most important thing is that we feel safe, comfortable and don’t leave feeling hungry.

  1. So you’ve decided to travel:

Vacations are not often a spur of the moment thing when you live with a food allergy. Lots of meticulous planning goes into each trip and for those of us who have a food allergy, we have to be willing to compromise on where we stay, where we go, what we bring, and even what airline we travel on. We have to be understanding and acknowledge that we may need to stay somewhere where we can cook our own meals or bring our own food. Just because we need to take precautionary measures doesn’t mean that we have to compromise on fun or cost. We can still enjoy the full extent of our vacation, we just have to be willing to make the necessary arrangements beforehand and ensure our travel companions are willing to compromise as well. Like dining out, it’s all about options and in order for everyone to come away happy, we have to work as a team, communicate with each other and be willing to compromise on certain things that are not necessities.

We have to be willing to compromise without sacrificing safety. To meet each other half way, give a little, and take a little, otherwise everyone is going to leave most situations unhappy or unsatisfied. If we start considering ourselves sleuths by always finding answers for new and exciting ways to dine out, bake for others, and travel safely with a food allergy, it will make learning that tricky “compromise” skill just a little bit easier every time. As for those living with an allergy, we have to be willing to stand up for ourselves, admit when we’re uncomfortable and have faith that those around us will help us find the best possible solutions by flexing that compromise muscle.

– Arianne K.

To “Pensacon” and Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Arianne K.

 

Food Allergy Guidelines: Holiday Edition

The holiday season is now upon us!  Along with shopping for gifts and pulling out your ski gear, this means holiday gatherings throughout the upcoming month and seeing family and friends.  So often these events revolve around food which can be stressful for those of us living with food allergies. Here are some of the guidelines I’ve put in place for myself to help ease any uncertainty I may have in these environments and allow me to enjoy the event:

  1. Find out what type of event it is in advance.  I find cocktail parties much easier to navigate as there is less focus on the food and whether or not you are eating.  I try to speak to the organizer in advance and, if the event is at a restaurant, I will often contact the restaurant directly.  I often end up not eating at all at these events, but it’s helpful to know if any of my most severe allergens are being passed around.
  2. Offer to host a dinner yourself!  While this can be a lot of work, it will ensure that you know exactly what is being served and what you can eat safely.
  3. Get involved with the planning.  For work parties, I have often been on the organizing committee and involved in the venue and menu selection.  The ability to influence the decision on where the event is held and what will be served is key and you can also be an advocate for other people with dietary restrictions to ensure others are comfortable asking questions about the menu.
  4. Bring your own meal.  If it is a gathering revolving around a meal (ie. a sit-down lunch or dinner), speak to the host/hostess about bringing your own food.  I typically try to match my food to follow the same theme as what they are planning to serve and bring it in my own container that I can easily heat up.
  5. Eat first!  If you are going to an event where food will be passed around, be sure to eat beforehand so that you don’t end up hungry by the end of the night.
  6. Be first in line.  While it may appear rude to some, I have always felt more comfortable dishing my food early in the serving process when the serving utensils are not being passed between dishes and there is a smaller chance of cross-contamination.
  7. If you are attending a lunch or dinner, offer to bring a dish that is substantial enough that you can just eat that, if necessary.  Also bring along a set of dedicated serving utensils to ensure that they are clean and not being passed between dishes.

If you feel unsure about something, don’t feel the need to eat or drink it.  Those of us who are hyper aware of cross-contamination will know that guests or servers often pass around different food trays, mix & match serving utensils and even touch drink glasses without thinking about what they’ve previously touched or eaten.

The holidays and all the events associated with them can be a real time of stress and anxiety for those of us with food allergies, but if you can plan ahead, communicate well, and are comfortable with the fact that not all gatherings will revolve around the food, then you can enjoy them safely!

– Alison M.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Life-Threatening Allergies

Having a life-threatening food allergy can be scary, but what happens when you also suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder? How do you cope with having a sensitive food allergy, without having anxiety attacks every time you go out to eat, or go to a party?

About five years ago, I was diagnosed with a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder but had been noticing symptoms for far longer than that. For me, Generalized Anxiety Disorder symptoms come in the form of constant worrying, with certain situations making those worries feel even more intense. Prior to this diagnosis, I experienced two anaphylactic reactions, both of which required me to administer my EpiPen®. One of these anaphylactic reactions occurred at a Christmas party I was at, and another was at a casual fast food restaurant, where there was a miscommunication between myself and the cashier. Both instances caused my anxiety levels to rise and made me feel intensely worried anytime I ate away from home.

Overcoming the obstacles of being able to eat food that I didn’t prepare myself was a challenge, but with time and preparation, eating out became a manageable task, which didn’t cause me to feel severe anxiety.

The first step I took in managing my food allergy anxiety was making a promise to myself to be far more diligent than I had been in the past. One area of my life that I recognized I needed to take more control over in order to help manage my anxiety was going to events with baked goods. Typically, if I went to this kind of event , I felt confident enough to eat it if the baker assured me that they were tree nut and peanut safe. However, this still left the possibility of “what if?” As a healthier alternative for my mental health, I started bringing my own baked goods, or potluck items to parties in two separate containers – one container for myself, to ensure that my items didn’t get cross contaminated with other items, and another container for the rest of the party-goers to enjoy. If I wanted to enjoy food that I didn’t bring, I started to make sure that it was pre-packaged from a store and had ingredient labels on it that I could read. I would also ensure I was the first one to grab food out of the package before any other cross-contamination could occur.

The second step I took in managing my food allergy anxiety, was being more careful and inquisitive at restaurants – even fast food ones. Typically, when going to a fast food restaurant, I had a bad habit of not mentioning my food allergies at all. When ordering a sandwich, which was supposed to be allergy safe, it mistakenly had a sauce on it which included tree-nuts. This bad experience caused me to have severe anxiety whenever I visited any type of restaurant or fast food establishment. After this incident, I started being more diligent to ensure that every restaurant I visited – from fast food to fine dining – was aware that I had life-threatening allergies to tree nuts and peanuts. I also started to make sure that I asked about the food making and cooking procedures at the restaurant, and whether or not the kitchen used tree nuts and peanuts in their dishes. Doing my research and asking lots of questions helps to minimize my anxiety and helps to ensure I feel safer when eating out in public.

The third and final step that I took in conquering my food allergy anxiety was being more confident. Not only did I feel anxious about my food allergies, but I also constantly worried about whether I was being a burden to the people around me when asking lots of questions about allergy safe items or holding up the server at a restaurant to ensure my dish was safe for me to eat. Since being diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I’ve come across a lot of resources which have helped me deal with my constant worries. Over time, I’ve learned that I’m not being bothersome when asking about allergy safe food, because without doing that, my life could be at risk.

Having life-threatening food allergies, and managing anxiety can be tough, but with the right tools and confidence, it’s extremely possible.

– Rachel MacCarl

Eat, Drink and Be Scary: Allergen-Friendly Halloweens

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Arianne K.

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