Shellfish. Peanut. Soy. Lactose. Gluten. We’ve heard of all of them and then some, right? If you are someone who faces any or multiple of these food allergies or intolerance issues, it can make everyday life quite challenging.
There is often a deep sense of loss when lifelong favorite foods or restaurants are suddenly off-limits. It can be more difficult for adults to accept the food substitutions since, unlike children, newly diagnosed adults remember what certain foods are supposed to taste like. For example, gluten-free pretzels or brownies might not taste bad, but if you spent your whole life having the gluten version, you’re probably going to notice the difference.
What’s the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?
A food allergy is an immune system response to a food protein that triggers an allergic reaction in the body. Symptoms can include hives, itching, swelling, vomiting, diarrhea and nausea. In some cases, it can cause potentially life-threatening symptoms, either by breathing difficulties (anaphylaxis) or a sudden drop in blood pressure.
Sometimes, food allergies may be less obvious and can be diagnosed by reflux of stomach contents and eczema. Recent studies have found that 40 to 50 percent of eczema cases in young children are triggered by food allergies. There are eight foods that cause 90 percent of allergies: milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. That doesn’t mean other foods can’t cause reactions as well.
A food intolerance is an adverse reaction to a food that does not involve the immune system. Reactions can be immediate or delayed up to 24 hours after a food is eaten. Symptoms of intolerance are sometimes elusive and can include a combination of the following: bloating, diarrhea, nausea, indigestion, aggravation of eczema and/or asthma. Food intolerances can sometimes mimic symptoms of other medical conditions. Most of the suggestions in this post are geared towards food allergies, but it doesn’t hurt to practice some of these tips with intolerances as well.
Whether you're dealing with an allergy or an intolerance, read on for a few tips to make the early weeks of life with a newly restricted diet more manageable.
Confirm the Diagnosis
If you have unmistakable food allergy symptoms after eating a certain food, you may be tempted to just not eat that food and avoid the time, expense, and hassle of allergy testing. This is what most do people nowadays. Vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free diets are trendy, especially on social media. Being trendy can be fun, but it’s not always the best idea when it comes to what foods your body may or may not be able to tolerate. Symptoms you attribute to what you believe is a dairy allergy may be the more easily treatable lactose intolerance. You might have an allergy to what a food was cooked in or a chemical added to a processed item and not the food itself. That's why it's so important to be tested. You can ask your primary care physician for a recommendation.
Time for a Pantry Cleanup
Clear every item you can't eat from your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Why? No sense in keeping them around as unnecessary temptation! It’s also a way to avoid cross-contamination. Be sure to check your cosmetics and toiletries for potentially allergenic ingredients, too, especially if they go near your eyes, hands or mouth. If you live with roommates or family who eat things you can’t, it’s ideal to separate your food storage and prep areas and possibly keep some separate cookware and utensils for yourself.
Consider Specialized Help
Not every allergy severely restricts your diet. For example, if you have a shellfish allergy, but don’t really eat shellfish, you may be able to adjust to dietary and lifestyle changes relatively easily. Some other food allergies require almost total overhauls of daily eating habits. For most, that includes allergies to eggs, dairy, nuts, and grains. In addition to having an allergist, a dietitian with expertise in food allergy issues can be beneficial in helping you adjust. They can help ensure that your diet is nutritionally sound and suggest safe foods you may not have considered.
Find a Like-Minded Community
Nowadays, there are no shortages of support groups, especially online in the social media realm. Support groups, whether online or in-person, are a great way to discuss the challenges of living with food allergies with others who are in the same situation. Many of these groups also share recipes, which can help inspire you if you are having dilemmas over what to eat.
Play with Recipes
You won't necessarily have to give up your favorite recipes when you're diagnosed with an allergy as an adult, but you will need to make substitutions to take advantage of cookbooks and recipes that aren't specifically written for those with food allergies. Focus on learning substitutions for the most common ingredients you have to avoid in the kitchen. There are tons of non-gluten flours, egg substitutions and alternative milks out there nowadays. Create a stash of dependable allergen-free recipes for yourself.
Restaurants Are Not Off-Limits
Eating at restaurants soon after an allergy diagnosis can feel discouraging, so start slow. Depending on where you live, it may be easier or more difficult to find restaurants that will make substitutions or have options that will work for you. Stick to one or two restaurants where the chefs or owners are approachable and accommodating and expand from there. Some chain restaurants actually list the food allergens and additives their dishes may contain, which is also helpful.
Practice Managing Your Stress Levels
It's perfectly normal to feel stressed as you transition into this new lifestyle. There are studies of people living with food allergies that consistently show that they have high levels of stress.
If this diagnosis makes you feel overwhelmed, do whatever possible to simplify other aspects of your life for a while. Find compassionate friends to talk to. Start an exercise or meditation program. Even seeing a professional to talk about your frustrations can positively enhance your overall mental health and wellbeing.
Whether you have a food allergy or a food intolerance, you can take small actionable steps, like the ones mentioned above, towards maintaining a healthy and happy lifestyle!