Staying Positive (About Food Allergies)

As someone with blood cancer, I’m no stranger to the things that people say to me that can be “hurtful. When I’m feeling less charitable, I say they are “dumb”. This is a common experience for patients with cancer.

Educating others about food allergies

As a caregiver of someone with food allergies, I have gotten the same kinds of comments. The difference is, the dumb cancer comments are often attempts to say something comforting, even though they aren’t at all comforting. The food allergy comments, though, are often out of lack of knowledge. People just don’t know much about food allergies, and I have always had to remind myself that I need to push aside my annoyance and take the opportunity to educate. I tend to look on the bright side of life, so I do my best to find the positive in what they say.

Addressing comments about food allergies

These are just a few of the things I have heard when the subject of food allergies comes up:

“What does he eat?”

I hear this a lot when I first tell people about my son’s food allergies (to milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts). After I say the second allergy on that list, I can see their eyes grow wider as they imagine what it must be like to adapt a grocery list. My response to “what does he eat?” is usually something like, “Oh, he can eat 4 or 5... thousand things. Broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, chicken, fish, beef, pork, rice, potatoes...” They get the point pretty quickly.

The positive to this is that it’s a chance to educate. It’s easy to focus on what someone can’t eat, and less overwhelming when you focus on what they can eat. But I know it’s also important to make it clear that those unsafe foods are a big deal. They can be hard to avoid sometimes. But there are plenty of alternatives.

“I could never do it.”

I used to hear this from other parents when we talked more about the everyday reality of being a caregiver to a child with food allergies. We would talk about things like adapting recipes, about going to specialty grocery stores, giving up certain favorite dishes, etc. It’s overwhelming for some people to think about, especially when they’ve also just heard about the dangers of an allergic reaction.

My response to this has always been something like, “Yes you could. It’s your kid. You could and would put in the time and energy to figure it out”. The positive spin on this? Sometimes I’d also point out that our family generally ate healthier as a result of the dietary changes we had to make. More whole foods, less processed stuff. We mostly do our own baking. We read the ingredients on every label that comes into the house. Overall, we know what we’re eating, and we know better than most.

“You have allergies? Oh, we have a gluten-free menu.”

This is the first reaction we often get from a server at a restaurant when we mention food allergies. We tell them the specific allergies – milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. But the reaction is often to pull out the gluten-free menu. “No no,” we say. “He’s fine with gluten. It’s milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts.”

The positive here is, we’ve also found that even if the gluten-free menu isn’t relevant for us, it’s usually a sign that the kitchen is aware of food needs, and they’re often open to listening and adapting. It might just take a little extra time, making sure the server and the kitchen know exactly what our son’s needs are..

“Nobody had allergies when we were kids.”

This isn’t entirely true. People did have food allergies, though they are much more common now. Unfortunately, when I hear this, there’s usually a silent accusation, as in “People are too sensitive now” or “They have to be making this stuff up.”

To be honest, it’s hard to put a positive spin on this. When people go here, they’re usually less open to being educated. They’ve already made up their minds.

Trying to stay positive

But we can try anyway. Yes, I say, there really are more people with food allergies than there were 50 years ago. Our food is different now than it was. We live differently. And hopefully, we act differently – with more compassion toward people who are different than us, physically or emotionally or mentally. And that includes people with food allergies.

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