Managing Food Allergies: The Basics
Finding out that you or your child has a serious food allergy can feel overwhelming. In the first appointment, a parent may hear the allergist say the term “life-threatening” and not much else – other than to fill the prescription for the child’s new constant companion, the auto-injector.
It is usually only post-appointment, and on your own, that you begin to think through the ramifications of “avoiding that allergen” and that an allergenic food might turn up unexpectedly in the ingredients of packaged foods, or deep fryers, or personal care products. And what about school? Will my allergic child feel safe among all the allergen-eaters and the many sets of grubby little hands?
Suddenly the allergist’s pronouncement to “avoid all traces of the allergen” feels like the weight of the world. At Allergic Living, many of us have food allergies too, and we know the anxieties, especially at first. But like the many allergy experts and health journalists who contribute to our magazine, we also know this to be a fact: food allergies are manageable.
You have to be smart about it and organized, since a life with food allergies means planning because, well, we eat every day of our lives. As families or individuals living with allergies, what we don’t get to be is as spontaneous as others. But we can live safely, fully and well.
Get Organized: Managing your allergies starts with organization. If you have an allergy, avoidance of your trigger becomes second nature. You’ll become the person who always has the treat and auto-injector in her bag, not to mention wipes and a cell phone with 911 on speed dial.
There is a learning curve before you can start to feel comfortable with the new dietary restrictions and anaphylaxis precautions, and that takes time.
Importance of hygiene: The first step to managing a food allergy involves basic hygiene. Wash your hands – a lot. Residues from foods you are allergic to (for instance nuts) can be transferred from one person’s hands onto surfaces like bus or subway poles, and then onto your hands. This won’t be a problem as long as you always wash your hands before eating or touching your mouth, nose or utensils.
Warm, soapy water is the best way to wash your hands but hand sanitizer is better than nothing. Baby wipes are also a good idea and it is more likely that the proteins can transfer to the disposable wipe. They can also be used to clean tables and chairs which is especially useful during travel (e.g. airplane).
Cross-Contamination: The second step involves learning and teaching others about cross-contamination. Also called cross-contact, this occurs when a food that you are allergic to comes in contact with something that you were going to eat. The allergen contamination may happen directly or may occur indirectly through shared use of utensils.
For an example of the latter, say there are two soups on the stove, one with cream and one that is safe for a dairy allergic individual. It’s essential to make sure that the same spoon isn’t used to stir both soups. It will be important to educate friends and relatives about cross-contamination when you go to their homes.
Grocery Shopping: Buying packaged food at the grocery store can be particularly challenging, especially at first. That’s because you’ll need to get used to reading the label on everything you buy, and often more than once. This includes foods like crackers, breads, cookies, sauces, ice cream, candies and chocolate. Be sure to read the ingredient list, as well as any precautionary statements (ie: This product may contain peanuts).
When you’re reading the ingredient list, look for a direct mention of the food you’re avoiding (ie: soy) and any hidden words or names. For example, the word casein is sometimes used instead of milk, and an allergen like mustard may be hidden in the word “spices”.
In Canada, new regulations became law in 2012 that require manufacturers to list priority allergens in plain language, and list ingredients of ingredients if they contain a priority allergen. For example, if the starch in a cracker is derived from wheat, this would have to be indicated.
In the United States, labeling rules have been in place since 2006 that require manufacturers to use plain language when listing priority allergens, and to declare all priority allergens. (Note that priority allergens in the U.S. do not include sesame and mustard, as they do in Canada.)
Keep in mind that an easier, safer option is often to prepare food from scratch. Shop for meats, fruits and vegetables that are safe for you to eat and create delicious snacks and meals at home. That way, you’ll know for certain what’s in your food.
In Allergic Living.com’s recipe section we have plenty of appetizing recipes free from top allergens.
Eating Out: While eating at home is always a safe option, you may find yourself wondering: will I ever dine out again? Can I trust any relatives or friends enough to deal with the changes? What about venturing out to restaurants? Determining where you’re comfortable eating is a personal decision. Some people prefer to do all (or almost all) of their eating at home. Others feel comfortable dining almost anywhere as long as they are careful to ask the appropriate questions.
If you have multiple food allergies that belong to different families (i.e. dairy, tree nuts, legumes) it may make life a little more complicated than you were hoping for. But don’t fret, dining out can still be safe and enjoyable. The trick will be to find a restaurant that you’re comfortable with and that demonstrates good allergy awareness, and then keep things simple. Choose grilled meats and vegetables, fresh salads with oil and vinegar and fruit and coffee for dessert.
Speak Up About Food: With food allergies, you have to ask questions and get over shyness when someone else – from Grandma, to auntie, to a waiter, to a teacher or a colleague – wants to serve food to you or your child with this allergy.
We teach kids to respect adults and authority, but with an allergic child, it’s important to teach them not to eat foods that others offer – unless mom or dad has pre-approved or (when they’re older) unless they’re sure of the ingredients. For adults, get over embarrassment; be certain to ask about ingredients, and learn to do this in an efficient, confident manner.
Another important point to make is that you should always carry your auto-injector with you and most importantly, never eat anything unless you have it with you. Even when something seems safe, if there is the slightest risk of cross-contamination or the tiniest trace of your allergen, you cannot afford to have a reaction without your emergency medication with you. Allergic reactions are unpredictable and often progress quickly so you do not necessarily have enough time to wait for emergency responders to bring help.
Staying Informed: Finally, an ongoing part of managing food allergies is education. Learn as much as you can about your allergies, and teach others what you know.
A note of caution: be careful where you get your information from. The internet is great for a lot of things but information found on it can also scare you and be inaccurate. Make sure that you find reliable websites from organizations that specialize in allergies or university-hosted websites.
Once you have the basics down, it is always great to stay in the loop on the latest on treatments, allergy alerts and other allergy information. Signing up for Allergic Living’s monthly e-mail NewsReport is a great way to keep on top of things.
Explore our website and you’ll find many resources to help you educate teachers, friends, family and co-workers in a way that will be easy for them to grasp. And remember, if you remain cool and collected, those around you will too. Allergies are indeed a life changing experience but they do not have to take the joy out of life either!