Category Archives: Communication

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.

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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.

 

Skating with Allergies

Here in Ottawa, one of our favourite winter sports is ice skating. With the world’s largest skating rink, it’s no wonder! Folks come from all over the world to skate on the 7.8km long rink (Rideau Canal) and enjoy the classic “BeaverTail” pastry. My mother quickly learned to bribe me out onto the canal with those sweet treats as a kid… but then I developed food allergies.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy skating the Canal for exercise, but I’m still grieving the loss of eating those BeaverTail treats afterwards. Last year I made my own top-allergen free adaptation (https://epiadventure.wordpress.com/2018/01/26/beavers-tails/) but this year I’ve been too busy skating!

After getting a job as a first aider, I’ve now skated over 200 km on the Rideau Canal Skateway this year reaction free! Here are my best allergy-conscious skating tips:

  1. Dress warmly! Layers are really important (with the right materials). If you’re contact allergic to wool, you can try adding it as a middle layer, or find a sweat-wicking alternative like Polartec. Fun fact: I over-layered on my first shift and the sweat condensed and froze onto my hard-shell jacket!
  2. Bring your own equipment or call ahead to ask about cleaning! I definitely spilled my allergen-safe hot chocolate all over my skates this year, and I wasn’t able to get them totally clean. I don’t share my skates, but it’s something to consider if you plan on renting. Helmets are a fantastic idea on the canal as well, so I bought my own to avoid any lice, allergens, or scented cleaning sprays.
  3. Bring allergen-safe snacks with you! The food huts aren’t always open, and they’re so small that cross-contamination is a huge risk. For example, the Beavertails’ website lists tree nuts, wheat, dairy, soy, barley, tropical oils, and sulphites as being present in their huts. Instead, I like to bring bananas, golden kiwi, pumpkin seeds, rice crackers, and safe chocolate chips.
  4. Bring something warm to drink! I often forget to bring my thermos and regret it since it’s so easy to warm up with a hot drink. Recently I’ve taken to making safe hot chocolate by pouring 3Tbsp of chocolate chips into my insulated mug, then filling it 2/3 with boiling water. I close it up & shake until the chocolate is mostly dissolved then add my safe milk. This leaves me with a perfect temperature drink that is a bit less lumpy than other methods I’ve tried.
  5. Bring wipes! There are often people eating inside the warm changing huts, and this is the easiest way to make sure your hands are clean before you eat.
  6. Keep your auto-injector on you and keep it warm but accessible. When emergency (911) is called for an incident on the Rideau Canal, the first aiders like me on Skate Patrol are dispatched as well, because there are a lot of people and the ice ambulance is only available during the day on Winterlude weekends. We then transfer to the land ambulances as soon as possible. Fun fact: I wear my auto-injector on the side of my leg so that I can kneel on the ice while helping people. Surprisingly, no one ever notices it so I point it out to my partner and supervisor before every shift.

See you on the ice!

– Janice H.

Tradition for the Holidays

Everyone’s family is its own special kind of eccentric; and nothing brings it out more than the holidays. Family, friends, dinners, presents, decorating, cooking, the list of traditions goes on and on, unique to us and our loved ones. In my life, I’ve created some very special customs.

Some date back to when I was young that were indoctrinated in me by my parents, and others I’ve created with friends to ensure we all get the most joy and love from the holidays.

Having an allergy around this time of year can be a big burden, especially when so many events center around food. Well allow me to kindly disagree. Although it can seem overwhelming at times, let me share with you some of my favorite traditions, made better and more special by my food allergies.

Potlucks: Every year my friends and I get together to celebrate the holidays. Over the years, traditions have developed amongst ourselves ranging from ugly sweaters to Secret Santa gift exchanges. The biggest tradition we have is sitting around a table or hanging out in the kitchen while sharing delicious foods with each other. Potlucks can be a stressful event if you have a food allergy. We always have to be mindful of ingredients and cross-contamination because every platter or covered serving dish holds a certain level of uncertainty and concern. It can make a holiday party less enjoyable and stressful. A tradition we’ve created to combat a mystery plate is to list the ingredients of your dish. Whether it be in an email, a fancy place card accompanying your dish or giving out the actual recipe, we let everyone know what the dish is and what’s in it. You never want to be speculating or guessing what’s on your plate. Everyone likes surprises during the holidays but not like this. Even though we may want to keep our prized recipes secret, we choose to take surprise out of that tuna surprise casserole and promise not to tell anyone the secret ingredient.

Getting into the spirit might mean partaking in one or two spirits. If there are mixed punches or festive beverages being shared, ask for the ingredients. Different alcohols can have different ingredients and they are not always labelled. It’s important to do some research into the different breweries, wineries, etc. to ensure your allergens aren’t present. An important rule and one we should all follow regardless of an allergy, is don’t share your drink, or leave it unattended. Use red “solo” cups with your name written on it or wine glass identifiers to better distinguish your wine or eggnog glass when you put it down to unwrap a gift or hug an old friend.

Boxes are made for sharing:  One beautiful tradition my family has come to cherish is ordering, sharing and enjoying Vermont Nut Free Chocolates together. When we discovered this company, it was incredible. Growing up we didn’t have the opportunity to eat many treats that weren’t made by my mom or grandma. Since then, we’ve discovered several safe places to buy and eat from but the tradition of reading the brochure and choosing our favorites chocolate (mine is the maple creams) remains. Come Christmas morning/afternoon after all the presents are unwrapped we’d each open our box of chocolate, mixing and matching with each other while we showed off our gifts and shared the moment together.

It’s easy to let our food allergies consume us with stress and anger around this time of year. We may think it’s better to shut ourselves off from others to avoid friends and parties with food because we’re worried or scared. Whether it’s with our immediate family or the friends we choose to call so, the holidays are time best spent with the people we love. We should never let our food allergies get in the way of the people we cherish or look forward to seeing each year. Tradition can come in many forms during the holidays making them much more meaningful and special. So, raise a glass, eat a cookie and hug your friends because you’d be surprised what can eventually become a tradition.

  • 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

Guest Post: When an Angling Passion and a Fish Allergy Collide

I learned to enjoy fishing a couple years before learning that I was allergic to fish.

My first fishing experience happened when I was a boy of four. My immediate family was down in Texas on a cattle ranch owned by my mother’s family, which, like most ranches in the area, featured a pond that was regularly stocked with fish.

Accompanied by our dad, my brother and I went to work on the pond with nothing but a cane pole, a plastic bobber, and a worm on a hook. I don’t remember much about that day of fishing, with the exception of a clear memory of gripping the wetted line and hoisting aloft my first, wriggling catch – a perch of what must have been no more than five inches.

Of course, I had plenty of help from my dad but pride swelled in my chest.

A few years later, another sensation signaled that I’d have to take extra precautions with fishing for the rest of my life.

Right after the birth of my third and fourth brothers – the twins – my mother arranged a housekeeper to help tidy up our Northern California home. She was a great help to us, and very generous. The housekeeper’s husband was an avid angler who fished the San Francisco Bay and sometimes ventured into coastal waters for larger fare.

One day our housekeeper turned up with the gift of her husband’s latest catch – a beautiful red snapper. The species of rockfish has since become somewhat endangered off the California coast. My mom dutifully accepted the snapper and proceeded to fillet and cook it.

Like many Western families at the time, our experience of eating fish was limited to the occasional tuna fish sandwich (a nice break from peanut butter and jelly or bologna). So, the spread of snapper and thick potato chips was quite the novelty, and my brother and I made quick work of eating it.

A few minutes after finishing the meal, however, I began to feel a prickly sensation in my mouth and throat. Looking in the mirror, I saw that my lips were ringed with red hives. In a few more minutes, the hives sprang up on my back as well. The reaction (not to mention the age range) was very similar to Simone’s account of her first experience as noted in the blog post linked here: Oral Allergy Syndrome.

Luckily, the reaction stopped there and subsided over the course of a day, but the implication was clear: the snapper had caused an allergic reaction.

This was quite the surprise, given my family’s regular consumption of tuna fish. But fish and shellfish allergies are quite complex, it turns out. Some people are allergic to certain proteins called parvalbumins found in all fish species. Others, like me, are allergic to the parvalbumins found in some fish species but not others.

Unfortunately, there’s no real pattern of intolerance for me to follow. Tuna are in the Scombroidea family, which is the best tolerated fish among those with fish allergies, and I’ve continued to eat tuna to this day with no impact (although I take my tuna sandwich with my epinephrine auto-injector at the ready, just in case).

I’ve had allergic reactions to other species, including cod and mahi-mahi, during a couple of controlled-condition tests in my early 20’s. In each case, the reaction was the same: a prickly sensation in my throat accompanied by hives. It has never risen to a level beyond one that is manageable by a dose of an anti-histamine to minimize the hives on my body.

I’ve stopped testing new fish species since it just doesn’t seem worth it to take the risk. Despite the new allergy, I’ve maintained an interest in angling over the years. When I fish, I follow the recommendations from the American Academy of Asthma and Immunology (AAAI):

  • Wear gloves when handling your catch. Bonus points for wetting them before making contact to minimize trauma to the fish if you’re planning on a release.
  • Minimize the chance of sticking yourself with the hook. The best way to do this is with a good pair of jaw spreaders and fishing pliers. Together, they make quick work of removing a fish hook, which again is easier on the fish.
  • Never forget your epinephrine auto-injector.

Of course, the AAAI cautions anyone interested in fishing to follow their own best judgment. Their rules have worked for me so far, allowing me to keep pursuing my angling interest.

Recently I launched FishingTech.com. Because some of the most rewarding aspects of fishing – cooking and eating them – are off the table for me, the site’s focus is on other areas: the history and future of the electronics, gadgets, and software that make the sport easier for pros, more fun for amateurs like me, and more accessible to folks who couldn’t otherwise be fishing.

I like to tell myself that the fish allergy is also helping me by giving me some kind of karmic boost, with the fish somehow sensing that there’s no possibility of predation. But if that were the case, you’d expect a better success rate.

But I guess that’s why they call it fishing, not catching!

– Andrew M.