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How My Food Allergies Affect Me Socially

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​When most people think of food allergies, they think of the physical reactions that can result from a person ingesting allergens. A swollen face, itchy tongue, trouble breathing, and even a trip to the emergency room are all common associations that people make with these immune system reactions. But no one really talks about another concerning side effect of food allergies — the impact that they can have on a person socially.

​Growing up with food allergies has always made having friendships and relationships challenging. Some days, I was proud to verbally list my food allergies, as if they were a core part of my identity, but most days, I just wanted to blend in with the other kids. At school, whether it was when I was eating my rice cake sandwich among rows of children eating white bread, or when I was given allergy-friendly cookies when everyone else was eating cake, I was keenly aware that my allergies made me different.

​At times, the desire to fit in with my peers caused me to compromise my own health. So many childhood experiences revolve around food, and I didn’t want to miss out. So, I would conveniently leave out that I was allergic to wheat as my friends passed around a plate of chocolate chip cookies. I also chose not to tell my friend’s mom about my dairy allergy, so I could join the other girls in eating homemade ice cream at a sleepover. I thought that I was getting away with these compromises, but the frequent stomachaches, along with the swollen eyes and eczema on my face in my school pictures revealed the truth.

​Throughout my adult years, my food allergies and intolerances have multiplied, and being diagnosed with another allergy-related condition called eosinophilic esophagitis, has made me feel less eager to spend time with friends in person. I live in a state that’s known for its delicious food, and eating out at restaurants is the main way that people build and nurture relationships here. I used to think a good solution would be to meet with my friends at restaurants, and just eat my safe foods at home before, but most of the time this would bring about a long list of questions from the other person about my food allergies, or they would feel awkward eating in front of me. Both outcomes were exhausting, and even the most well-meaning people tended to exclude me from any future social opportunities. I’ve tried the approach of inviting people to do non-food related activities, but they often want to close the outing with a meal at the trendy new restaurant or latest café. So, I’ve become more hesitant to initiate plans.

​Maintaining friendships is hard, but dating is even more difficult. Curiosity rapidly changes to annoyance once men realize that dating me is a lot different than they’re used to. I once even had a guy lose interest in me because I couldn’t join him at a popular fast-food restaurant. Even more worrisome is how my own health will be affected by being with a new person. I would have to ask my new partner if they’ve recently eaten anything that I’m allergic to before we kiss each time, and that’s not the most romantic thing. Yet not being able to breathe because of an allergic reaction isn’t ideal either.

​Food allergies have presented challenges in the social aspects of my work life too. At past jobs, I had to sit in separate rooms from the employee break rooms to eat my lunches, since even the smells of certain foods common to my local area cause allergic reactions for me. Because of this, my food allergies kept me from getting to know my coworkers on a deeper level. On top of that, when food-related rewards like donuts or pizza were brought in to show the team appreciation, or to boost the staff’s morale, I couldn’t quite join in like everyone else. Talking with coworkers becomes tough when you can’t relate to how tasty the latest catered seafood dish was.

​Even so, being a person with food allergies hasn’t been all bad. In fact, I’ve gained a lot of strength from it. I’ve become more courageous with advocating for myself, I’ve learned how to enjoy my own company, and I’ve developed greater empathy for others. I’ve also learned a lot about food and reading nutrition labels, and I’ve been able to use that knowledge to help those that need guidance with how to adjust to new food allergies. Moreover, I’ve become more grateful for the foods that I can eat. I’m thankful for every single bit of food that my body can still tolerate. Additionally, my greater appreciation for food has led to me really enjoying food shopping for others. I love to surprise my family members with boxes of pastries or give them gift cards to their favorite restaurants. Ironically, expressing my love for people through food brings me joy!

​Even though I will always wonder what my social life would be like without food allergies, I’m learning to be happy with the social outlets that I do have. I love keeping in touch with friends via video conferencing, texting, and social media, and I’m working toward building even more courage to make more memories with family and friends in person. In addition, the online food allergy communities have been my safe place, helping me feel more understood and less alone. I may have had to become more creative with how I socialize with others, but I now know that having food allergies does not sentence me to a life of isolation. I’m truly grateful for the people in my life who are supportive and accepting, and that realize that there’s more to me than what’s on my plate.

Getty image by MoMo Productions

Originally published: March 30, 2023
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