Dating with Food Allergies, a Tricky Business

in Food Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

From the Allergic Living archives. First published in the magazine in 2010.

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 last August 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 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.

Next: Having the Big Talk