Why Aren’t People More Allergy Aware?

Help me, Help you.

It’s important to take a step back from our daily lives and gain some perspective. Whether it’s to gain a new respect for your surroundings, or a better understanding of someone else’s life choices, it makes us all a better, well-rounded society that appreciates the differences we all possess.

I’m well aware that the severity of food allergies is not something most people deal with on a daily basis. The reality that a trace amount of food or sheer inhalation can affect someone so physically is a reality many live with, but not all. Over 2.5 million Canadians self-report having at least one food allergy. Yet, there sometimes seems to be an overwhelming lack of allergy awareness or compassion in society today. I usually try to brush this off, with fleeting thoughts circling the idea of “you don’t live with it every day, so of course you don’t know”; but the more I am exposed to people who aren’t aware of allergies, the more I realize it’s not necessarily that they are unaware. It may be that they are simply misinformed on the subject.

I truly believe the road to knowledge is paved with curiosity and an open mind. In order to help people who aren’t allergy aware better understand our food allergies, we need to squash three common misconceptions surrounding them. I summarize these below.

  1. Cross-contamin… what?
  2. In my opinion, the biggest misconception hindering allergy awareness is the use of the term cross contamination. The main point being:

    Cross-contamination is when “a small amount of a food allergen gets into another food accidentally, or when it is present in saliva, on a surface or on an object.”

    For example, when a knife is used to cut an egg and is only wiped off, rather than cleaned with soap, the use of this knife on something else could cause a reaction to someone with an egg allergy. Personally, cross-contamination is the scariest aspect of my food allergy. It pulls me into the depths of anxiety and has me second-guessing everything on my fork.

    Someone else’s kitchen can be a scary place. I rarely eat food when I don’t know how or where it’s prepared. If someone is prepping food for me, I urge them to ensure no cross-contamination happens from using the same utensils or bowls. I do my best to express the dangers of foods touching other foods but one thing that is completely out my control is the cross-contamination of utensils and objects around me. Doorknobs, handrails, etc. anything you touch I may also touch; and that is something I don’t think many people are aware of. My suggestion is a simple one: just be aware of your surroundings. Whether you’re in public, at a dinner party, or at a friend’s house; be aware of what you’ve eaten and what you’re touching. If you’re not sure, the safe bet is to wash your hands or even your mouth. Trust me, your food allergy friends will thank you! Plus it‘s an overall healthy and good hygiene practice.

    1. False news about allergies:

    I always tell anyone prepping my food about my allergies in great detail, whether it be in someone’s home or at a restaurant. I stress the severity of them and ensure I talk to those in charge. It’s these steps that help me feel safe when dining out. I think when it comes to the misconception or lack of awareness with food allergies, it is people abusing the word allergen. I can’t express the importance of telling others about your food allergy. However, disliking a food, hating a certain taste, or not wanting a certain food on your plate does not qualify as an allergy. By creating a misconception about food allergies, preparations, or brushing off the severity of it causes a miscommunication and could lead to a potentially fatal mistake for those who actually have a food allergy. I understand not liking food (I hate cauliflower) but calling it an allergen isn’t fair to your friend who deals with a food allergy every day. You can ask for substitutes, exclude things, or choose not to get a dish, just please don’t mislead people about your reasons why.

    1. This week in the movies…

    The last reason I think there isn’t more allergy awareness, is the portrayal of food allergies in movies and in pop culture. It often shows sensationalized medical measures like swelling up like a blowfish, “funny” hives, awkward situations, or misrepresentation of administering an auto-injector, it’s hard for those not living with a food allergy to spot a reaction in real life. The truth is, allergic reactions come in many forms and being able to identify and react to those symptoms is important.  An allergic reaction can affect several areas of the body and can present itself in many forms(3). Helping those around us understand how to identify and treat an allergic reaction helps everyone gain some perspective and respect for the severity of food allergies. If you’re unsure, it’s simple- just ask. Ask your friend or family member to explain their signs and symptoms. Come up with a plan of action, and make sure you know where there auto-injector is. Everyone likes the good-guy-hero in the movies. If you train hard and learn the signs, symptoms, and emergency protocol, that could be you!

-Arianne K

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Backyard Camping for Canada’s 150

In honour of Canada’s 150-year birthday, I’ve decided to try and see more of what this beautiful country has to offer. Now, this doesn’t just mean the art installations and pop up restaurants, it begrudgingly means the great outdoors; But for someone who has been watching Survivor for the past ten years, I definitely could not survive in the wild. Sleeping outside, putting up a tent, with no running water or A/C, plus a lack of Netflix, all of it sounds awful to me. Not to mention, pollen and wild flowers make me look like I’ve been crying for days. So all in all, I’d usually trade the great outdoors for a great book and a glass of wine. Although when summer comes around, we Canadians have the urge to stretch our legs and explore our own backyards after being cooped up for so many winter months. I’ve noticed a lot of people doing exactly that this year during our country’s big birthday. For me, when the mood strikes and I feel like rekindling some of my youth or exploring, I choose the simple method and camp in my backyard, a friend’s, or a cottage’s backyard. It’s no easy feat, considering the multiple food and seasonal allergies I have. But, like most things in life you prepare for the worst and hope for the best, and by doing so your backyard camping adventure is sure to be a hit.

So, you’ve decided to sleep outside, enjoying all that the outdoors has to offer with a house in clear view (just in case). It’s time to get some supplies ready to enjoy the stars and your beautiful Canadian backyard.

My first course of action is usually to get an antihistamine (Benadryl or Reaction) ready. Both play a big role in helping to keep my seasonal allergies like Pollen at bay. Try to check a weather app for pollen levels before heading outside. Avoiding itchy eyes and a runny nose is important since there isn’t usually a ready supply of tissues in your wild backyard.  A necessary tool for any camping excursion is bug spray regardless of allergies, it can help prevent bites and nasty hives/welts. If one does it make it through your shields and bites you, If you do have an insect allergy make sure the people around you are aware of what bugs can cause you to react so you can all keep a look out.

Good safe food and snacks are a must on any camping adventure, or any adventure for that matter. Whether you’re up in a mountain or in the back yard, campfire snacks and foods are key to a great time. I’m never shy about telling people about my food allergies, so when we plan a menu I ensure that all the food is safe, and prepped in an area that I trust to avoid cross contamination. Even though you’re in your backyard, you may be away from a phone, so make sure your auto-injector is near you at all times. Before you hike out to the yard, and you dive into those snacks, make sure you read the ingredients of everything you might eat twice. Ensure you trust the brands and never leave anything to chance. A good tip is to also teach those around you how to identify a reaction and how to react in case of an emergency. Teach them beforehand how to use your auto-injector and what to do in an emergency.

The last puzzle piece of a backyard camping adventure for most adults is some good beers, nice wine, or great spirits. If you’re of age and comfortable, a nice beer around a campfire can be a unique Canadian experience. To ensure a safe drink and cheers to Canada, make sure you know what you’re drinking. If you’re perusing the local craft beer section, make sure you know the ingredients (If you’re unsure you can always contact the brewery), always go with a brand you trust and when in doubt, do some research. The same rules apply for a nice glass of wine. If you enjoy a cocktail more, make sure you know what brand/type of liquor is in the drink, as well as the juices/mix. Many cocktails can have some of the top allergens in Canada as ingredients, so being prepared and knowing what you can have is important before you’re out in the backyard with only the campfire light.  Being responsible when drinking doesn’t just mean knowing your limit, it means knowing what’s safe, asking the right questions and being prepared if you have an allergy.

There is something thrilling about staring up at the night sky. The ability it has to make us feel so small in the grand scheme of things while fueling us with curiosity. Canada has some of the most beautiful landscape in the world, so what better way to start enjoying all this country has to offer then in our own backyards. Camping helps us reconnect to the wild, but for those of us who enjoy the comforts of a nice couch and a good Netflix binge, backyard camping is a way to experience the outdoors with the comforts of the home near at hand. Having food or seasonal allergies should never be a deterrent from enjoying good food, great friends, and summer experiences. Our allergies can’t hold us back if we don’t let them; Being prepared with safe foods, ingredients, and drinks you’re comfortable with, alongside the proper medication and preparation is the smart way to start off any backyard camping adventure. Throw in a bonfire and a heartfelt and rousing rendition of O’Canada and you’re well on your way to celebrating the great white north’s 150th birthday in style.

-Arianne K.

Tips for Travelling with Food Allergies

Before you Travel

Planning for the worst might seem stressful, but that’s how astronauts survive travelling out of this world. If you have allergies, it makes sense to plan out your contingencies when you travel outside of your home. Here are some pre-travel tips:

  • Know where the closest medical care is available, what it will be, what it will cost, and how to arrange to get there.
  • If travelling alone, find out how you would call for help.

When travelling with others, teach them what to do in case of a reaction. Food Allergy Canada has fabulous free online courses available at www.allergyaware.ca.

  • Get Travel Insurance. Travel Insurance is not only helpful for medical care in other countries, but also helps in case there are unforeseen reasons you need to cancel or change your flights.
  • Learn as much of the local language as possible, especially the terms associated with allergies so that you can recognize what your allergens are called, and explain yourself when you are having a reaction and need help. Hellolingo.com is one free language sharing site, and Duolingo is a great language learning app for your smartphone.
  • Make a small business card with your name, picture, and allergens in English and the translations to the local language. I also put pictures on mine when I was travelling where the literacy rate was not particularly high.
  • Plan what medications you would bring with you, by speaking with your allergist and your travel doctor if going overseas.
  • Plan where you can find safe food/snacks, and call ahead to hotels and restaurants about their food allergy accommodations if possible.
  • If you need to bring your own safe food, be sure to check customs regulations about what you can bring, and how much, to avoid your safe food being confiscated.
  • If you can, book a hotel room with a kitchen, and find out where local groceries can be purchased.

When you travel by car:

  • Bring what you need if you can! In my car have a little emergency stove, water, a camping pot, towels and soap, and dehydrated meals at all times so that I can safely make meals anywhere. I also found a portable kettle, which allows me to use any ceramic mug to boil water. It takes a long time, though…
  • Be aware of how far you’ll be from medical care, and whether there are any areas you’re driving through without cell phone coverage. Consider not eating while you are outside of cell phone coverage areas, or as an alternative, find out where the closest emergency pay phones will be, just in case.

When you travel by bus/train/plane/boat:

  • Bring your own food with you, and lots of wipes. The wipes won’t necessarily remove allergens, but at least you’ll know your eating area is disinfected.
  • Ask when booking for early boarding, so that you can wipe down your seat. Some companies will create an allergy-free buffer zone for you, while others will not. Ask in advance to avoid conflict.
  • Often hot water is available on trains & airplanes, so you can bring dehydrated or freeze dried meals on board and make them easily. Sandwiches work well for your outbound journey and you might think about bringing canned food for the way home. Check customs regulations before you make your meal plan; many countries have restrictions on fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products.
  • If you’re heading on a cruise, call the company beforehand and ask about medical care and food accommodations on board the ship. Some companies are really good at accommodating food allergies.

When you travel in the wilderness:

  • If you have allergies, it’s probably best if you don’t travel alone. At the very least, have someone who knows your route plan and have regular check-ins so that they know where you are and whether you’re safe.
  • Bring some form of emergency beacon, satellite phone, GPS or all three, so that if you should have a reaction, you can get help.
  • Bring lots of auto-injectors. Call the local health authorities in advance to find out what they recommend in terms of what you should bring.

Finding safe food in other countries:

  • Labelling laws differ between countries! Look out for what regulations are in place.
  • Many products change recipes from country to country, so READ THE LABEL EVERY TIME. For example, a popular soda brand tastes different internationally & a UK version of a popular energy drink in Canada contains apple juice.
  • It might be safest to cook food from scratch, rather than buying pre-packaged food or eating at a restaurant.

Don’t give up!

Even with multiple severe food allergies, it is possible to travel. Hopefully these tips will help you to get out there, and explore the world!

Happy Travelling,

-Janice

Learning to Accept my Allergies as an Adult

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop with my parents, enjoying a peach juice and a sprinkle donut. Or an iced tea and a bagel. Or my personal favourite: a milk and an oat cake. Whatever the occasion, our trips always involved a delicious, warm, baked good– one made with wheat, of course.

Whenever I had an important decision to make, my parents would, and still do, take me out for coffee. From applying for University, accepting my first job offer, and now planning my wedding, all of my most meaningful life decisions have been made over a cup of coffee and a treat.  But all that got a little more complicated recently.

I was diagnosed with a severe wheat allergy at the age of 30 after an anaphylactic reaction sent me to the hospital during a wintry run. After living with this allergy for three years, and having a second allergic reaction just a few weeks ago, I have been forced to redefine my identity and my relationship with food. What does it mean when I can’t eat the same food as my family and friends around the dinner table? How does it feel when I have to refuse a piece of cake at a birthday party or a treat at work for the hundredth time?

To be honest, it’s hard and I am still learning to accept that this allergy is something I will have for the rest of my life. Adjusting to a severe allergy as an adult isn’t easy. After my first reaction three years ago, I thought maybe it was just a fluke, despite my allergy tests showing a strong reaction to wheat. After my second reaction just a few weeks ago, a result of being served a contaminated dish while eating out, my allergy is literally all I think about.

I don’t often mention the ways that having an allergy has changed my life, beyond just having to say no to foods containing wheat. It’s changed the way I am able to enjoy food with my family at home, out in social settings with my friends, and most of all, the way we cook at home. To be honest, I can’t remember the last family function we had where I was able to just eat the same thing as everyone else. Coming from a large, traditional Italian family, most of our staples like pasta, pizza, paninis and most desserts are foods that I’ve either had to modify, or just stop eating. Wheat-free pasta is fairly simple to find, but a wheat-free cannoli is something I’ve yet to enjoy.

Recently, I attended my sister’s wedding and her gorgeous, three-tier banana chocolate chip wedding cake with fondant icing (my favourite) was completely off-limits for me, and to be honest, it made me a little sad. Not to mention the cheese tortellini with mushroom cream sauce and all the appetizers. Her venue was incredibly accommodating and made me a completely wheat-free meal, that was delicious by the way, but that didn’t stop me from feeling a bit left out or disappointed that I couldn’t enjoy everything that was on her beautifully curated menu.

With my own wedding coming up, it makes me kind of sad to think that I will have to have a “special meal” different from what my guests are eating. While I know that serving the Italian staples are a must, I just hope that whichever venue we choose will do their best to create similar dishes for me that don’t make me feel left out of my own big day. More on wedding planning with an allergy coming up in my next blog!

I know that accepting my allergy, and making safe food choices, even if that means feeling left out sometimes, is something that I have to accept. I also know that many restaurants and bakeries are targeted towards wheat-free living and even offer full menus that are completely wheat-free. Luckily, I live in Toronto where places like this are never too far. These days, our weekend trips to Tim Horton’s have been replaced by a stop at our favourite gluten-free bakery around the corner from our condo. While they don’t serve old-fashioned glazed donuts, they do make a mean lemon poppy seed muffin.

-Jenna

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Going out with New Friends

One of the best parts of going to school is that you will have the opportunity to make lots of new friends. However, with any situation of making new friends, breaking the ice about your allergies can be difficult. Below are my top 3 tips to how to best manage going out with new friends while being safe with your allergies.

  1. Tell them in advance

It is always a lot easier for both yourself and your friends to talk about your food allergies in advance of going out. It can be a fun fact you bring up about yourself when meeting people for the first time. I always find it easiest to introduce when I’m going out to eat with people. Usually if they ask what I want I’ll say, “Anything without nuts because I’m allergic to them!” I try to keep it casual and not make a big deal about it because I don’t want to make anybody afraid to eat with me.

  1. Come up with activities that don’t involve food

It’s always a good plan to have some ideas of activities to do with your friends when you go out that doesn’t involve food. Look up different things to do in the new city or town. For most people, the city will probably be quite new to them so exploring the place you will be living for the next little while is always a fun idea!

  1. Find some places that are safe for you to eat

A lot of the time when going out, people will default to food-related activities. Make sure you have restaurant options that you know are safe for you to eat at. That way when you say that you have an allergy you can offer a list of choices for your new friends to choose from. This helps makes accommodating your allergy easier for others and ensures you will be comfortable when eating out as well.

Making new friends can be difficult – especially when you have a food allergy. It is always best to tell them when you first meet them so everybody is well aware and can ensure that your allergies are accommodated for when you go out! It is also a good idea to let people know where your auto-injector is and how to use it in case of an emergency! If you have any other tips when going out with new friends, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

– Lindsay S.

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Eating in Residence

During the first year in university or college, a lot of people will decide to live in residence. This is a great way to make friends and really get integrated and feel at home on your campus. When living in residence with food allergies, there comes a set of risks involved as you are living with lots of new people who are likely not used to living with someone with food allergies. Here are my top 3 tips for how you can eat and live safely in residence with food allergies.

  1. Let your residence supervisor know

This is something you should try to do in advance or on your first day of moving into residence. Your residence supervisor is usually an upper year student who lives on your floor and is responsible for the well-being of all of the students. They will typically run a meeting on your first day for everyone on the floor to introduce themselves and get to know each other. I spoke with my supervisor in advance of this meeting and she was able to make an announcement that there was somebody with an allergy to nuts on the floor and to try and keep the floor as nut-free as possible. I found this really helpful so that I didn’t have to go around telling people individually and I knew that if I was ever in trouble my supervisor would be aware of my food allergy and be able to help.

  1. Keep food in your room

A great way to eat safely when in residence is to keep your own stash of food in your room. Lots of people will bring in a mini fridge so that you can keep perishable items stocked up and then have a bin or two for dry goods. I usually kept all of my breakfast supplies on hand so that I wouldn’t have to rush to a cafeteria before going to class. I also had snacks on hand so that if I was in my room studying or hanging out with friends, I would have something to eat. This also guarantees that you always have food around that you know is safe for you to eat.

  1. Be careful of the common room

A lot of residences will have common rooms where there are typically basic kitchen appliances like a toaster, microwave, coffee pot, sink, etc. Since you can never guarantee what others have made in the common room, it is always a good idea to be very careful when going in there. I usually went in and did a quick scan of what was on the counter and in the sink before bringing any of my food in to cook. Since my floor had been advised of my food allergies, it was very rare that there were any products or dirty dishes with my allergen present. However, there is always a risk involved with using a common space. I always used my own cutlery and dishes and washed everything carefully with soap.

Living in residence is such a fun experience that I would highly recommend it to everyone. If you have any other tips when eating in residence, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

– Lindsay S.

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Eating on Campus

Regardless of whether you are living on campus or off campus while away at university or college, a lot of your time will be spent on campus. Whether its picking up a snack between classes or grabbing dinner with friends, it is important to know where you are safe to eat on campus.

  1. Navigate the cafeterias

Something to spend your first couple of weeks doing is to get to know what your different food options are on campus. Most schools will have a few main cafeterias along with maybe a restaurant, snack areas or chain food suppliers. Spend some of your time getting to know where your food options are and what each of them serve. This will help you to determine where you can eat safely and what places have the types of food you like.

  1. Talk to the staff

The hospitality staff at your school will be the best people to help you eat safely on campus. They are the ones who know all about how food allergens are managed on campus and how you can best go about eating safely. Talk to the people who actually work in the cafeterias – usually the chefs and food preparation staff will have no problem talking to you and discussing what foods are safe for you to eat. If ingredients are not posted, the staff should be able to show you ingredient lists so you can know exactly what you are eating.

  1. Be adventurous

I found that growing up with food allergies led to me being a very plain eater. I rarely tried foods that were outside of my comfort zone as I had been so used to eating a restricted diet. When going away to school, I decided it was a good time to try some new foods – as long as I knew they were safe. After speaking to the hospitality staff and chefs at the cafeterias, I found that there were lots of new things that I could try that they could ensure me were allergen safe. This was a great way to try new foods in a safe environment. Just always make sure you have talked to staff, double checked ingredients, have an auto-injector nearby (just in case), and have informed those eating with you that you are trying something new.

Eating on campus will become a staple while you are away at school so it is important to know your options and know how to eat safely! If you have any other tips when eating on campus, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

By Food Allergy Canada