Dating with Food Allergies, a Tricky Business

in Food Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

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.

“Recently, 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.

Dating Eating OutThinkstock: ridofranz

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. But it isn’t.

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 tis 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. Depending on the allergies or intolerances, such eateries are not always easy to locate.

The impetus for Zero8 arose from co-owner Dominique Dion’s own bad experiences eating out. He was getting sick in the best Montreal restaurants before his celiac disease was diagnosed. Tired, bloated, suffering eczema and frustrated that there was no restaurant for people like him, he and some partners opened Zero8 in February 2009. He acknowledges that keeping the premises as allergen- and gluten-free is a full-time job.

“It’s a challenge when we go see suppliers,” he says. “People don’t understand. They’ll ask me why I’m talking to them about allergies. And I explain to them very carefully why.”

Next: Teens Need to Be Taught to Think Twice