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My Food Allergies Are Not Just a 'Preference'

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For anyone who has food allergies, or has children with them, then all this might sound painfully familiar.

I learned how to read as a child by my mother handing me food in the grocery store and teaching me to read the ingredients looking for allergens. Yes, that is how serious it is.

I never eat dessert in restaurants. As someone fatally allergic to shellfish and tree nuts, I know most restaurants don’t really know what is in their food. A perfect example: I asked the waiter if there were nuts at all in the key lime pie. No. Are you sure, because I’m allergic? Definitely, no nuts. Not even in the crust? Um, no. Not even almond flour? Uh…oh, yeah, there’s that.


That is not an unusual interaction, and 99 percent of the time I don’t even bother. With more and more companies and restaurants catering their menus to people with food preferences, the word “allergic” is taken far less seriously than it once was. People use that word when they really mean “intolerant” or simply as a way to get their desired food the way they want it. Everyone has a right to control the type of food they eat, even without justifying why. The problem is that when the word “allergic” gets used too much, waiters in particular stop taking it seriously.

My first grade teacher thought she could just take the walnuts off the top of the salad at lunch and give it to me. She had no idea that contamination is all it takes – and as soon as I took the first bite it happened. Immediately my mouth started itching, welts formed all over my body, my face and lips swelled up and soon my throat began to swell also. That was one emergency room visit that could have ended much worse. Another 10 minutes and I would have been dead from asphyxiation as my throat would have completely swollen shut, preventing me from breathing. Luckily the school nurse knew exactly what to do, and we were down the street from a hospital. But I’ll never forget it.

In college I was studying for finals and had picked up a protein bar at the store (I rarely take that chance, they are usually full of nuts). I quickly scanned the back for the big bold warning that would tell me if it had nuts. Nope, just soy and dairy were listed. That was my mistake – my moment of complacency. Despite laws requiring those bold letter warnings, you must always read the ingredients. I took a bite and spit it out. I could tell as soon as I started chewing that something was wrong. The buzzing itch the moment it touched my lips. I immediately scanned the back as my lip started swelling within seconds – there it was, “almond flour.” I just happened to live quite literally behind an ER. I could have walked, but I drove. Two minutes later I walked in, and didn’t have to say a word. They knew with one glance. They hooked me up to an IV, rapidly pumping me full of things like prednisone and diphenhydramine. It was another case of luck. Had I not been so close, it would not have been good.

I routinely carry epi-pens, dissolvable children’s Benadryl (because I can’t swallow once my throat closes), medical alert ID bracelets and necklaces and a wallet card with information. I don’t eat food I don’t know a lot about. So I avoid social gatherings that involve homemade food, because I simply can’t trust that nothing touched anything I’m allergic to. I tend to only eat out at places I have been going to for many, many years. And I eat the same things. I don’t like to travel, because it just gets that much more complicated.

a woman's epi-pen and medical bracelets

That’s the reality of it, and that’s all I’ve ever known. I don’t find it dramatic, and it doesn’t really interfere with how I live my life – because my life has always been lived this way. I read the ingredients of everything. I’m highly anxious about being in situations where I’m expected to eat, because I don’t want to make a fuss or be rude. But my life depends on it.

When I ask the waiter five times about the ingredients, I’m not being “picky.” I’m making sure my dinner selection doesn’t kill me. When I avoid parties, it’s not me being “anti-social” – it’s because it takes so much thinking and planning and worrying that it becomes unenjoyable. No, I don’t want to “taste” something, “try” something or generally eat anything from anyone or anywhere that hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.

To some people it’s just food. But to someone with food allergies, it is the difference between living to see the next meal, and not.

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Originally published: June 26, 2017
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