Food Allergy Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know (From Hosting Tips to Taking Trips)

Last Update: November 2, 2023

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 Celiac Awareness Month, we’re clearing up some of the confusion in an effort to support the many Americans with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. With the rising number of individuals being diagnosed, you’re bound to come across someone who’s living a gluten-free lifestyle. 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 and know next steps.

Below, we’ll run through some basic information about celiac disease, gluten intolerance and allergies. Then we’ll provide some tips from Kathleen Shannon, a Marketing Associate for Enjoy Life Foods, a company that specializes in snacks, treats, and baking mixes that are certified gluten-free. She’ll share her top tips for people living with celiac disease, plus ideas for hosts who want to accommodate guests with food restrictions.

Celiac Disease, Gluten Intolerance, and Allergies: An Overview

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).

Gluten intolerances or sensitivities are adverse reactions to foods containing gluten that don’t necessarily include intestinal damage. Depending on the level of sensitivity, symptoms can still range from gastrointestinal distress to headaches to extreme fatigue. Gluten intolerance is may be 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.

Some individuals may not have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, but an allergy to wheat or another gluten-containing grain. Food allergies occur when the immune system produces an antibody in response to a specific protein. Wheat is one of the top 8 allergens, which account 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, Kathleen 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.

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. In addition, cross-contamination can also occur when people eat something containing an allergen and touch other items around them. This is something to consider when accommodating any guest with severe allergies.

10 Tips for Living With Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance

It took Kathleen, a Marketing Associate at Enjoy Life Foods, years before she realized gluten (and other food allergens) were causing her digestive disruption and skin irritation. She’s been following a gluten-free diet since 2012. Because she travels frequently for work, she has lots of great tips for always finding something safe to eat.

  1. Learn all the hidden sources and alternate names for gluten (and any other allergens or foods you’re avoiding). 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. You’ll learn how to be an ingredient label detective!
  2. Convert all personal care and household cleaners to gluten-free versions if symptoms persist. “After giving up gluten, my skin mostly cleared up and I felt better, but I still had some lingering symptoms, like the occasional rashes and GI issues. I started reading about how gluten can show up in shampoos, body washes, and laundry detergent, so I began transitioning all of my products to gluten-free brands. Once I did that, my lingering symptoms went away.”
  3. Call or contact the company before trying a new product. It may seem like a hassle, but it’s better to be safe than to learn about an unwanted ingredient after the fact. This will help prevent any mistakes and accidental reactions.
  4. Always carry a protein snack, sanitizer wipes, and whatever you need to feel better if you accidentally ingest gluten. “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 Seed & Fruit Mix is one of my favorites, but I also carry Enjoy Life Chocolate Bars for a non-protein treat, plus sanitizer wipes and hand spray just in case. I don’t need an EpiPen, but people with anaphylactic allergies should never leave home without one. I’m unable to prevent any symptoms if I accidentally eat gluten, but I try to keep activated charcoal on hand to help flush the gluten out of my system.”
  5. Use apps. “When I need to eat something while on the go, I love the Find Me Gluten-Free app, which searches my immediate area for restaurants that have gluten-free options. Whenever I go out of town for work or a vacation, I’ll check the app so I know what options I’ll have ahead of time. The Spokin app is another great tool for discovering gluten-free and allergy-friendly restaurants in new areas.”
  6. Call restaurants (airlines, hotels, other venues) ahead of time during non-busy hours. Travelers with dietary restrictions can 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. I’ve requested gluten-free meals on long flights as well, which is a nice option.”
  7. Ask specific questions when ordering. “I used to train university dining staff on food allergy safety best practices and protocol, so I know that communication between the guest and staff is very important. 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. I’ll always ask if there’s any bread in a menu item before ordering so I know if it’s an easy modification. I’ll make sure the gluten-free fried foods aren’t cooked in the same fryer as gluten-containing foods, and ask that my food be prepared in separate pans. And I always will confirm with the server—both before and after receiving my food —that it’s gluten-free and doesn’t contain any of my food allergens.
  8. When in doubt, leave it out! “For a while, I’d feel like a burden in restaurants and to the people I was dining with for having to ask so many questions, but I realized that my health is more important than that sense of guilt. If I don’t feel good about my exchange with the server, I’ll leave and go to a different restaurant; I have done so in the past. If a server seems like he or she doesn’t know enough to help me, I’ll also sometimes ask to speak directly with a chef for a more streamlined method of communication.”
  9. Use social networks. Connecting to others with similar lifestyles across the globe is a great resource when planning a trip. “After traveling all over the country for work, I’ve made friends with celiac disease and/or food allergies all over. Between these friends and the blogs I follow, I can learn about options that are verified by people I know rather than by Google.”
  10. 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. Just remember that it’s important to be your own advocate!”

6 Tips for Hosting People With Dietary Restrictions

From formal affairs to casual meetups with friends, there are lots of simple ways to accommodate people with restrictive diets.

  1. 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 of being a burden. This simple step shows guests that their comfort is important to you and helps prevent any last-minute surprises.
  2. 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.
  3. Try to include at least one entree or snack that’s gluten-free. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. Don’t pressure someone to eat. People with dietary restrictions 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.
  6. Always include guests with dietary restrictions, even if you can’t accommodate their needs. 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.

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Melinda Gross

Melinda writes about health, wellness, and food for the Thrive Market blog. She started her career as a financial journalist in NYC and has written for Where Magazine, Worth, Forbes, and When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys working out, sketching, and playing with her daughter and mini-dachshund, Goliath.

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