A letter from a dietitian with a severe food allergy to all who doubt food allergies are real or severe. No matter what you “believe” about food allergies, they are a real thing and a very real threat to many people.
Dear Food Allergy Skeptic,
Hi. You don’t know me, but my name’s Lindsey and I have a food allergy. If I eat tree nuts, my body experiences a reaction called anaphylaxis and I may die.
In fact, I feel pretty confident saying that if it wasn’t for an EpiPen, I would have died when I was seven. There was a bake sale at my elementary school for a kid who lost their home to a fire. When it was my class’ turn to shop the bake sale, I dutifully used the couple of bucks that my mom gave me to buy a couple of things – after all, everything donated to the bake sale was supposed to be nut-free, so no harm, right? I chose a cookie and a brownie – one for me to enjoy at school, and one to bring home to share with my family. When I got back to my desk, I only ate a little bit of the cookie before I started to feel funny. But I was a little kid and I didn’t recognize the “funny feeling” symptoms (i.e. tongue swelling, throat closing) as the life-threatening ones they were. Plus I was painfully shy and never would have spoken up to just say I felt funny.
By some miracle, another teacher at the school purchased the same nut-laden cookie I did. By some miracle, she remembered a couple students who had allergies and thought to call the school nurse to ask the teachers of the two students with food allergies to see what we bought from the bake sale. My teacher sent me back down to the bake sale where I met the nurse and the other teacher and pointed out what I bought. They exchanged a look, the nurse looked back to me and asked if I ate the cookie. I said yes, a little. She asked if I felt sick and, ever the shy and quiet student, I just nodded. They quickly brought me down to the nurse’s office where the nurse efficiently administered my EpiPen, kept me to monitor me, and called my mom. If it wasn’t for those chance happenstances and my EpiPen, I would’ve died that day, never knowing what was happening to me.
Or maybe it was the incident when I was fifteen, away at a summer music camp for a couple of weeks and I bit into a muffin that was unknowingly cross-contaminated with nuts. I had to simultaneously stay calm while quickly racing down the stairs of the dining hall, through the lobby, to the elevator, up a few flights, and down the hall to the camp nurse’s office to retrieve my EpiPen. All while my tongue and throat were swelling shut and my heart was racing.
Honorable mentions to all the times a college roommate had to have butter pecan ice cream, but didn’t thoroughly clean spoons and bowls after (gross), and I had an allergic reaction. Or the time my now-husband (then-boyfriend) and I were visiting his grandparents and his grandma assured us the cookies she was offering were nut-free…except they weren’t, and her honest mistake resulted in an allergic reaction. Or the Christmas where someone was snacking from both the bowl of pecans and the fresh crudites and the nut oils from their fingers got on the baby carrots that I ate, and that slight cross-contamination was enough to send my husband and I to a drug store for more Benedryl instead of Christmas dinner. Or the times where a mall was roasting chestnuts during the holidays and I had to rush past holding my breath. Or when a coffee shop or a friend or family member started brewing hazelnut coffee and I had to physically leave or step outside until I could be back inside without my tongue and throat growing itchy and my asthma triggered.
Anyway, I’m sure by now that if you’re a food allergy skeptic, you probably think I’m just being overly dramatic. That I didn’t die, so what’s the big deal? At least that’s what the food allergy skeptics have told me.
The big deal is that while not every food allergy is deadly, some are. Some people, children and adults, have lost their lives to food allergies. Sometimes it happens hours later, and sometimes it happens immediately, before there’s much chance to react.
Listen, Food Allergy Skeptic, I know it’s annoying to go out to dinner with us food allergy folk, and you feel embarrassed while we ask the server twenty questions and stress the importance of our food allergy. I know people use food allergies as an excuse to get chefs to modify to their preferences – but how you use that as an argument against food allergies (and yes, people have) is beyond me. You don’t think it’s a little more frustrating for me that many restaurants don’t take food allergies as seriously because of that, making it a lot more difficult for me to dine out safely? I can assure you, I don’t think that I’m a special snowflake, I really hate extra attention from waiters and co-diners, and hate causing inconvenience to others due to my food allergies. But if I’m dining out with you, please know that means you mean quite a bit to me that I’m literally putting my life in the chef’s hands while I’m out with you.
I know you think it’s dumb for entire preschools, classrooms, and schools to be declared peanut-free or nut-free. I know, you’ve told me. But there’s a reason you hear about elementary schools being declared nut-free a lot more than you hear about high schools being nut-free. High schoolers can think critically. High schoolers can read ingredient labels. High schoolers can know if they’re having a reaction or not. Really little kids (some so little they don’t even know how to read yet) can’t. Really little kids may just think they feel funny, and may not even realize what’s happening. (See: seven-year-old Lindsey.)
No. It’s not okay to brush it off because you think food allergies are exaggerated and dumb.
Food allergies may annoy you – but it’s not about you.
You may not understand food allergies, and why more and more people seem to have food allergies these days – but that doesn’t negate the fact that people die from food allergies.
You may think people with food allergies are just faking it for attention – but why would we fake something that is seriously such a pain in the a**? Would you fake getting a gunshot wound for attention? No? Okay, remember that the next time that you think that someone experiencing a life-threatening allergic reaction is just trying to get attention.
You may think kids don’t really have food allergies, but instead have overprotective helicopter parents who think their kids are special snowflakes. (Actual words I’ve heard.) Listen, I know pretty much all parents think their kids are special snowflakes for some reason or another, but if you’ve ever had to experience a life-threatening food allergy yourself or watch your child experience a life-threatening food allergy, that is not the way you want your kid to be a special snowflake.
You may not “buy into” food allergies, because after all, you don’t recall having a single friend with food allergies growing up (again, true words from a skeptic) – but the world is bigger than your small circle and just because you’re close-minded and don’t have personal experience with something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
I know you think food allergies are weird, annoying, frustrating, cumbersome, for whiny people, etc. But I think your food allergy skepticism is shocking and rude.
All I ask is that you reign in your skepticism a notch (unless you think the world is flat, then you’ve got bigger fish to fry). I ask for you to just extend a modicum of respect and empathy. Put yourself in my shoes and think – if it was you who could literally die, and pretty quickly at that, from eating a food, would you appreciate the eye rolls and snide comments? Would you appreciate being considered rude for not eating something homemade just because there were nuts on top and I didn’t want to “eat around them”?
Food allergies or not, the world would be a much better place if we all respected one another’s experiences a little more, even if we didn’t understand them.
With allergy-free hugs and kisses,