Peanut allergies, gluten sensitivity, lactose intolerance, Celiac Disease...these are just a few of the reasons why someone might be avoiding certain foods. But they often get lumped under the catchall term, food allergy, which isn’t always accurate and fails to represent the intricacies of each condition.
Because it’s Food Allergy Awareness Month, we’re clearing up some of the confusion in an effort to support the 15 million Americans with food allergies and 30 million with food intolerances. With numbers like that, you’re bound to come across someone who’s living with a restricted diet. And even if you don’t have any food-related issues yourself, adults can develop them at any time so it’s good to be aware of the symptoms.
Below, we’ll run through some basic information about food allergies and intolerances. Then we’ll provide some tips from Kayce Ledford, a Brand Ambassador for Enjoy Life Foods, a company that specializes in snacks, treats, and baking mixes that are free of the most common U.S. food allergens. She’ll share her top tips for people living with food-triggered conditions plus ideas for hosts who want to accommodate guests with food restrictions.
Food Allergies, Intolerances, and Celiac Disease: An Overview
Food allergies occur when the immune system produces an antibody in response to a specific protein. Wheat, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy, fish, and shellfish are the most common culprits, accounting for 90% of allergies in the U.S. Symptoms can range from life-threatening (immediate throat or tongue swelling that restricts breathing) to itching, headaches, congestion, or stomach issues that occur hours later. Allergy Specialists diagnose allergies using food elimination diets or skin and blood tests. Allergies may be temporary or permanent and can develop at any time. Because delayed, subtle symptoms can be difficult to recognize as an allergic reaction, Kayce suggests keeping a food diary to record all meals and health complaints. It makes it easier to spot patterns between certain ingredients and specific symptoms.
Food intolerances or sensitivities are adverse reactions to certain foods that don’t involve an immune response. While symptoms aren’t usually life-threatening, they can be severe, ranging from gastrointestinal distress to headaches to extreme fatigue. Food intolerances are even harder to identify because symptoms are more varied and can take up to three days to appear. They’re usually diagnosed through elimination diets or special tests.
Celiac Disease (CD) is an autoimmune condition that affects genetically predisposed people and is triggered by ingesting gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye). When this protein is present, the immune system attacks the small intestine, making it difficult to absorb nutrients from food. Because of this, CD can be life-threatening without a strict gluten-free diet. It’s diagnosed with a blood test and/or an endoscopic biopsy, which examines the small intestine, and has up to 300 symptoms associated with it (but frequent constipation or diarrhea are the most common).
No discussion of food allergies and sensitivities would be complete without mentioning cross-contamination. Unless foods were made in dedicated allergen-free facilities, traces of allergens may still accidentally get into allergen-free products. Cross-contamination is also why certain airlines sometimes restrict peanuts on flights. Passengers get the crumbs on their hands and spread them throughout the plane as they touch armrests, tray tables, and call buttons. If someone with a peanut allergy touches those same areas while eating, it could trigger a life-threatening situation.
10 Tips for Living With Food Allergies and Sensitivities
It took Kayce Ledford, a Brand Ambassador for Enjoy Life Food, years before she realized gluten was causing her seizures. She’s been following a strict gluten-free diet since 2012. Because she travels frequently for work, she has lots of great tips for always finding something safe to eat.
- Learn all the hidden sources and alternate names for your allergen. Avoiding gluten isn’t as simple as giving up bread (not that there’s anything simple about that!). Wheat is a common filler found in soy sauce, salad dressings, and even medications. The worst part is it can hide under different names like modified food starch, textured vegetable protein, maltodextrin, caramel color, and natural flavors.
- Convert all personal care and household cleaners to allergen-free versions if symptoms persist. “After giving up gluten, my seizures stopped and I felt great, but I still had some lingering symptoms, like migraines and hives. I started reading about how gluten can show up in shampoos, body washes, and cosmetics, so I began transitioning all of my products to gluten-free brands. Once I did that, all of my symptoms disappeared.”
- Call the company before trying a new product. “I had a seizure last year because I ran out of toothpaste and used the free sample I got at the dentist’s office. Now I never use a new product before calling the company first to ask about ingredients and manufacturing practices.”
- Always carry a protein snack, sanitizer wipes, and whatever you need to feel better if you accidentally ingest an allergen. “I always have a protein snack in my purse in case I find myself in a situation where there isn’t anything safe for me to eat. Enjoy Life’s ProBurst Bites are my current favorite. I also carry lots of sanitizer wipes to clean surfaces and my hands before eating. My condition isn’t helped by an EpiPen, but people with anaphylactic allergies should never leave home without one of those. Although nothing can fully stop my symptoms if I accidentally eat gluten, I’ve found papaya enzymes make me feel a little better so I always bring those with me.”
- Use apps. “When I need to eat something while on the go, I use the Find Me Gluten-Free app, which searches my immediate area for restaurants that have gluten-free options.”
- Call restaurants (airlines, hotels, other venues) ahead of time during non-busy hours. Travelers with life-threatening allergies can call airlines to request an allergen-friendly environment. “If I know the restaurant where I’ll be meeting up with friends, I’ll call earlier in the day (between the lunch and dinner rush) to ask whether they can accommodate my diet.”
- Ask specific questions when ordering. “I used to work as a server so I know how chaotic restaurants can get. I always say I have a wheat allergy when ordering because not all servers know about Celiac Disease and many think gluten intolerance is a fad, not a health issue. If I’m in an Italian restaurant, I’ll ask if the gluten-free pasta is cooked in the same water as the regular pasta. I’ll ask if they put a piece of garlic bread or croutons on the salads. I’ll make sure the gluten-free fried foods aren’t cooked in the same fryer as gluten-containing foods.”
- When in doubt, leave it out! “For a while, I’d feel like a burden in restaurants and eat the meal I ordered even if I wasn’t sure if it’s safe, but I don’t do that anymore. It’s not worth it. If I don’t feel good about my exchange with the server, I’ll leave and go to a different restaurant.”
- Use social networks. Connecting to others with similar allergies across the globe is a great resource when planning a trip. “Before I travel to a city, I’ll search my social network for people living in that area. If there are posts showing them eating in the same restaurant over and over, I feel confident that it’s safe for me to eat there, too.”
- Most important: Stay positive! “I don’t get discouraged when people don’t understand where I’m coming from. It’s not their fault. I didn’t understand how serious food restrictions are until experiencing them for myself.”
6 Tips for Hosting People With Allergies and Sensitivities
From formal affairs to casual meetups with friends, there are lots of simple ways to accommodate people with restrictive diets.
- When extending invites, ask guests if they (or their plus ones) have any food restrictions. Guests may not want to bring up their dietary issues for fear that they appear presumptuous. This simple step shows guests that their comfort is important to you and helps prevent any last-minute surprises.
- If you know guests have food restrictions, reach out to them. Ask for detailed lists of what they can or can’t eat. If possible, let them provide restaurant suggestions, review your menu, or invite them to bring a favorite dish.
- Try to include at least one entree or snack that’s free of most allergens. Even if you don’t get any feedback from guests, it’s always a good to include simple options that are safe for a range of diets. Fresh fruit and vegetable platters are often good bets, as are Enjoy Life products. If you’re looking for something heartier, Paleo recipes are naturally free of grains (including gluten-containing grains and corn), dairy, and legumes like peanuts and soybeans.
- List out all ingredients for food served. Place an ingredient card on trays of passed hors d'oeuvres or simple signs along the buffet table. If this isn’t possible, make sure your caterer has a few reference lists of all dish ingredients that guests can consult at the event.
- Don’t pressure someone to eat. People with severe food allergies may be more comfortable eating before or after a gathering so they don’t have to worry about cross-contamination. Respect their decision not to eat without bringing too much attention to it.
- Always include guests with food sensitivities, even if you can’t accommodate their allergies. People with special diets know how hard it is to find something safe for them to eat—they have to do it multiple times a day! They’ll appreciate being included even if you can’t accommodate their diets. Simply letting them know that there may not be anything for them to eat will help them prepare, and they’ll appreciate the heads-up.