Dating with Food Allergies, a Tricky Business
From our archives. First published in Allergic Living magazine.
THEIR second date was supposed to be a lovely evening in, complete with takeout vegetarian sushi that he was to buy at a place she trusted with her life. The first time they ever met, Lori Medoff, a Montreal optometrist and divorced mother of two, told Kenny Webber, the new man in her life, about her severe allergy to fish. The entrepreneur accepted it as just another facet in what he hoped would become a relationship.
Only when Webber arrived that evening in November 2007 with the food, Medoff noticed to her horror that the sushi wasn’t vegetarian, salmon roe had been sprinkled on top. And she explained all over again that if even a hint of the tainted sushi passed her lips, her throat would close and she wouldn’t be able to breathe, never mind kiss him.
“The restaurant thought salmon eggs weren’t fish,” Webber said at the time. “Fish is fish,” Medoff had replied. So what did these two lovebirds do? Simple: they skipped the food and went straight to kissing.
Ah, the kiss. You know: that warm, flushed feeling as your lips part and lock with another’s, that flutter in your stomach and your heart beating a mile a – hey, wait a minute! Because if you have food allergies or celiac disease, some of these sensations may indicate a less than romantic physical response.
Consider this story from Sloane Miller, who a few years ago brought a new guy and an allergy-safe restaurant dinner to her New York apartment. After dinner, as the pair held and kissed, Miller got itchy. When she looked in the mirror, she was alarmed to see hives on her skin, like a red, bumpy map of where his lips had been, around her mouth, on her cheeks, and along her neck, clavicle and right shoulder.
She couldn’t believe what was happening, and for a few frightening minutes, she blanked on what to do to stop the reaction. Now Miller is no novice when it comes to dating and food allergies. She is allergic to salmon, tree nuts, eggplant, melons, most tropical fruits and lemongrass.
Her interest in her condition, combined with her background as a psycho-therapeutic social worker, have led to a career as a food allergy coach and the basis for her popular blog, “Please Don’t Pass the Nuts.” But no matter the extent of her knowledge, she and her date couldn’t pinpoint the cause of her reaction. It had to be something. But what?
The next day, Miller’s GP and an allergist told her the cause was probably cashew residue caught in her date’s beard from a few nuts he’d eaten hours earlier. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, she could rattle off in her sleep safety measures for such a situation, but that evening she was rattled, period.
“Here I am, in my 30s and pretty capable when it comes to my allergies. But covered in hives and wheezing, I definitely had a moment of: ‘What do I do first here?’”
Welcome to the world of dating with food allergies or gluten intolerance. Think of it as alt dating, where preparedness is paramount and the difference of restricted diet dictates caution and truth, whether you like it or not. Even Miller, who knows the drill inside out, learned from her “mystery” reaction that minute particles of food do get caught in beards, on collars and in teeth, and can have a disastrous effect in the throes of kissing.
Others may spend time communicating in meaningful glances and words unspoken but, as Medoff’s and Miller’s experiences illustrate, you cannot. You can’t wait to be charmingly upfront and honest about your condition, no matter whether it’s an allergy to peanuts or the fact that gluten particles in something as mundane as a lipstick can cause you painful intestinal distress. You must take the lead.
Don’t Miss With the Kiss
Back in 2002, two allergists at the University of California at Davis published a survey that proved reactions to kissing aren’t uncommon. Among 379 people allergic to nuts, peanuts and seeds, they found 5.3 per cent had had allergic reactions, ranging from hives and itchiness, to swelling of the lips and throat, wheezing and anaphylactic reaction.
One of the study’s authors, Dr. Rosemary Hallett, suspects the rate may even be higher since researchers didn’t specifically ask respondents about kissing reactions. Instead, people volunteered that information on questionnaires.
So how do you prevent a kiss reaction? Research shows that with peanuts, at least, a wait of 4½ to five hours between the non-allergic partner eating the food and kissing helps, as does that partner having another meal in between and vigorously brushing his or her teeth.
Still, Dr. Jennifer Maloney, co-author of a 2006 Mount Sinai Medical Center study on this subject, has said that the safest approach of all is for people who plan to be kissing to avoid eating anything their romantic partners are allergic to, period.
These are the rules: Never kiss, then tell. Instead, tell first, kiss safely – or don’t kiss at all.
Having the Big Talk
Finding a love match is fraught with ups and downs, with tried and failed Internet dating site connections and blind dates set up by well-meaning, if sometimes misguided, friends. Allergies simply add an important extra aspect to finding the right personal chemistry.
Andrea Shainblum of Montreal knows this well. She was single in her 20s and 30s, and dated a lot. Some men did not respond well to the fact she has severe allergies to sesame, peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. There was the boyfriend who swore off all foods that might kill her, only she’d find empty candy bar wrappers that carried the warning: “may contain traces of peanuts.”
Then, there was the doctor who, on their first (and only) date, appeared uncomfortable while Shainblum was telling the waiter about her severe food allergies and checking which menu items were safe. By the time the appetizers arrived, the doctor’s attitude had cooled perceptibly.
“He had an idea of the kind of person he wanted to be with, and someone with severe food allergies wasn’t part of the picture,” says Shainblum, who is now a married mother of a toddler. “I thought, ‘OK, next!’”
Miller, the allergy coach, has had mostly positive dating experiences. Still, like Shainblum, she notes that her dates’ responses to her allergies are as varied as the men themselves.
“I was out with another guy who kept interrupting me as I explained what do in an emergency. It was clear that he was uncomfortable. When I showed him my Benadryl, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘I know what that is.’ I didn’t see him again.”
Miller’s story raises another key issue of dating with allergies or celiac disease, namely, ‘the talk.’ The talk encompasses more than kissing. It’s about lifestyle and having to explain that the most severe form of food reaction, anaphylaxis, can be life-threatening and usually comes on swiftly.
Or that you have celiac disease and if you accidentally ingest gluten, you’re likely to get symptoms such as severe bloating or diarrhea or perhaps cramps that can make you double over. While any of those would make for a painful date, you’d also be damaging your small intestine, and affecting your ability to absorb nutrients.
As with kissing, this talk is better done at or near the beginning of a date. In the case of allergy, you have to show a date where you keep emergency numbers, your epinephrine auto-injector, and you have to demonstrate how to use that auto-injector. (Remember, without instruction, novices may mistake which end is up and inject themselves.)
As well, for either condition, being upfront with the talk will prevent your date making plans at a restaurant where you cannot possibly eat. Shainblum, Miller and Medoff all agree there is no easy or perfect way to broach “the talk”. Like the Nike slogan counsels, they say to “just do it.”
“When you’re out for a first time with someone and giving him instructions in how to use an auto-injector, that may not be romantic, but neither is being rushed to hospital,” says Miller.
Finding A Safe Dating Haven
At Zero8, a restaurant in Montreal’s trendy Latin Quarter, couples sit on the terrace on a balmy evening, sharing bottles of wine or quaffing gluten-free beers as they enjoy everything from garlicky bruscetta to Thai stir-fries, pasta and thick-cut French fries.
This could be any bistro in this resto-rich city, complete with a “Z”-shaped, burnished wood bar, moody recessed lighting indoors and a pony-tailed, bespectacled owner who bustles around, making sure everything is perfect.
Zero8* is so named because its menu is free of the eight main allergens: seafood (fish and shellfish), peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, milk, soya, eggs and wheat or any other grain that contains gluten, such as barley, oat, rye and triticale. Its kitchen staff is specially trained in preparing and handling food.
While Zero8 was the first on the continent to offer this level of accommodation for food restrictions, it would be smart to find a couple of restaurants in your community where you trust the kitchen to prepare you a safe meal. Then they can become places to suggest to a date.
Teens Need To Think Not Drink
“Why?” is a question teenagers ask their parents all the time. Or, more commonly, “why not?” as they lobby for greater freedoms. But with their peers, teens sometimes don’t say anything at all for fear of not fitting in. For those with allergies, that can have disastrous consequences. They’ll want to tag along to Dairy Queen or another fast-food place because their friends are going. They need to be overtly reminded of the allergy risks.
Sage Lachman, a 15-year-old ace drummer from Vancouver with a peanut allergy, has even been to concerts where she notes: “It seems like everyone is making out.”
“If you’re under the influence of drugs and alcohol, you’re not thinking about your allergy to peanuts,” Sage says, sounding older than her years. “The best thing to do if you go to one of these social events is don’t get drunk and don’t make out.”
Dr. Scott Sicherer, a leading researcher at the Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, makes the same point to all of his adolescent and teen patients. Since dating safely is part of food allergy management in general, he doesn’t lecture, but rather engages his patients in a discussion that tackles high-risk topics head on, from drugs to kissing and more.
What would the teen do if at a party and the object of her dreams is pressuring her to make out? Or if someone tries to give the teen a drink? Invariably, he tells them of one no-nonsense female patient who figured out that if she spoke to her dates about her allergies from the get-go, the ones who really cared about her, or at least really wanted to kiss, would make sure not to jeopardize her health.
“Because if someone cares about you, they wouldn’t want to make you sick,” Sicherer says. “Advance planning is one great way to relieve the peer pressure. And don’t drink alcohol. It only makes you let your guard down.”
Sage, whose parents are always telling her never to drop her guard, had that life lesson reinforced during an end of session celebration at a summer camp in the Okanagan Valley. Sage and her date planned to dance the night away, but their plans were foiled at the start. As hors d’oeuvres were served outside the dining hall, her date, who is allergic to legumes, bit into a samosa that contained peas.
“He tapped me on my shoulder, said, ‘I have to go get my EpiPen’ and ran back to his cabin. I guess he thought the samosa was a spinach and cheese pie,” she recalls. “I told the staff, and the camp director, the doctor and two nurses all sprinted after him.” She spent their romantic dinner sitting next to an empty chair.
“It was kind of sad,” she says. “There was also a poster with a big heart that couples were having their photo taken in front of. That kind of sucked, too.”
The experience made Sage more determined than ever. “I don’t eat anything when I don’t know exactly what’s in it, and I never go anywhere without my EpiPen.”
It’s sage advice (so to speak), as is that from Lisa Ferlaino, a communications student from Montreal’s West Island. Last summer, she registered with eHarmony, the online dating website, because she was ready for a serious relationship with someone who would accept that she wanted a family and a career. In her profile, she didn’t mention her allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy and legumes. It wasn’t because she was hiding anything; there simply wasn’t a place for it.
Soon, Lisa was corresponding with an apprentice electrician. They had similar interests and goals and when she e-mailed him about her allergies, his response was that her health came first. “And then I found out that his mom is a nurse,” says Ferlaino, “and I was like, ‘this is good.’”
On their first date, at a coffee shop near her home, they spoke of family, their mutual love of tennis and Ferlaino’s health challenges. And for three weeks, they texted each other continuously. But when he returned from a family holiday in the Mari-times, they weren’t clicking like they had been. “There was no spark,” she says. “I deserve spark.”
So do you. Don’t settle. Allergies or not, you will kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince or princess, and there are happy endings. Medoff and Webber, for instance, have been together for going on two years, while Shainblum met Mark Shainblum, whom she would marry, when she was least expecting it. Shainblum had just moved back to Montreal, and began corresponding with Mark via e-mail over a professional writers’ website. He was interested in the same things – and she agreed to meet him at a busy west-end mall, thinking he’d be a new friend.
After they introduced themselves at the mall’s book sale table, she suggested they buy some Cokes and stroll around the neighborhood. That’s when Andrea explained to him why they couldn’t meet in a cafe.
They started dating and six months later, Mark threw out everything in his apartment that she was allergic to, including bachelor staples like bagels and peanut butter, and put all his dishes and utensils through the heavy wash cycle of a borrowed portable dishwasher – twice.
“What was the option?” he asks. “I wanted to be with her. We all come with baggage. If you care about someone, you work around these issues. I won’t deny it gets frustrating. But it’s worth it.”
Andrea says of her now-husband’s house purge: “I knew he was a keeper when he did that. It was the most romantic thing he could have done.”
Originally published in Allergic Living magazine. Click here and subscribe.