I spent years reading articles about people with food allergies having food anxiety, but I never took myself as being one of the them. I was in denial. After finding glass in my takeout, almonds in my salad, and lentils in my chickpea burger all in the course of a month, I started to re-evaluate myself. And I have very real and rational fears.
The last time I had an allergic reaction, I thought I was in the clear. My food was nut-free; however the sauce that came with my food was not. In the course of 10 minutes, I went from having a pretty normal Sunday afternoon to everything tumbling down around me. My eyelids and throat started to swell, hives appeared. I immediately took Benadryl to try to curb this reaction before it took a turn for the worse. Recently, whenever I have an allergic reaction, it overtakes my whole body. I feel weak and I have to lie down. I start to feel how I felt when I had mono back in high school. I wanted to sit up, but all of a sudden, I’ve lost the energy to. Although I’ve had countless allergic reactions over the years, I’m still simultaneously frightened and frustrated every time.
I love all kinds of food and trying new restaurants is exciting to me. I peruse menus in my free time and study everything from the ingredients to the preparation to the seasonings. With that excitement comes fear. I am afraid of new restaurants because it means I have to put my well-being into the hands of strangers. It also is such an annoyance to go to a restaurant with an idea of what I want to order only to be told I can’t have that dish because it’s cross contaminated. But better safe than sorry…
When I was little and didn’t know I was allergic to nuts and shellfish, most of my allergic reactions caught me by surprise. A plate of calamari would make my throat close or a bag of potato chips fried in peanut oil would give me hives. Now that I’ve been tested several times and am aware of my allergies, cross contamination is what I experience most often. The worst part about it is that no matter what I do or where I eat, eating out comes with a risk. There are very few (if any) restaurants that are completely free of peanuts, tree nuts, lentils and shellfish. And if those restaurants are, who’s to say that all of the ingredients they source are manufactured on isolated equipment? When it comes to food, my safety, health, and well-being are always at stake. I can never get comfortable anywhere besides my own home.
I started to realize that I have food anxiety a few weeks ago when I ordered my favorite-a matcha latte with non-dairy milk at a local coffee bar. I found myself looking over the barista’s shoulder even after I had paid to make sure that he picked up the right milk carton. Extreme? maybe. What’s crazy is that I’ve been doing this every week for about four months, and only on that particular day did I realize I was clocking the dude.
I’ve stopped eating without my Epipen. A few months ago, I left my purse at work accidentally on the way to a company party. Even though it was 6pm and I was starving, I chewed a piece of gum. It was all that felt safe to me.
I don’t think that there’s anyway around my fears especially since I know that one bite can mean a trip to the hospital, several days in bed, and possibly missing work. However, to quell my anxiety, I have a few strategies. 1) Ask questions : If you don’t know, ask. If you do know, ask. Ingredients change all the time. Never assume a restaurant knows your situation. 2) If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t eat. Because of my shellfish allergy, I tend to avoid seafood restaurants. It’s cross contamination city. That probably won’t ever change, so I’ll never be impressed with the surf & turf. 3) Stay prepared. As previously mentioned, I don’t eat without my Epipen and Benadryl on hand. You never know what can happen and there’s nothing worse than not being equipped.
Overall, I’ve struggled a lot recently with my allergies because my lifestyle has changed. I have a lot of meetings over lunch and dinner at work. People are always trying to feed me, which scares me even more because I don’t trust anyone to understand how essential it is that my food isn’t cross contaminated. I’m very passionate about food; however, I’m often at a loss because I can’t just go into a restaurant and try anything. It’s not safe. I hate being told that my allergies are limiting, but when I eat out they are. The beauty of my situation is that I have learned to be creative at home. There’s no way that I would put so much energy into meal prep or watch so many cooking shows if I could eat whatever I wanted. I’ve learned so much about food cooking for myself and it’s great to have a bank of knowledge to fall back on so that I can still experience many different flavors. That’s the way cookie crumbles. And my cookie crumbles peanut/tree nut/dairy/lentil/shellfish free.