To most of the world, food is something fun, exciting, comforting and a way to bring people together. More importantly, food is nutritious and keeps you alive, right? For over 15 million Americans, food can be something that’s a little more sinister, dangerous and even anxiety and fear inducing. On many occasions, I actually get anxiety when I go into a restaurant even if I know I’m not eating. I get very nervous and stressed and I unconsciously scratch at my left wrist.
Imagine life where you have to check labels every time you want to eat or use something or oftentimes, call the companies to verify ingredients and the safety of a product. The simple addition of a “may contain” statement can completely eliminate a trusted food or product from your daily use/diet. Complacency is not an option because a mistake can be deadly. Allergens are not just limited to food, they can found in everything from soaps to lotions to shampoos to toothpaste. You have to be constantly on your guard because your allergen could be hidden in many unexpected locations. For example, getting hives from trying a bicycle at Walmart or having a reaction because someone cooked your food with cookware that had accidentally come in contact with your allergen. These are just a few examples of my reality because I am anaphylactic (deathly allergic) to eggs, peanuts and all tree nuts.
So, what exactly are food allergies? According to FARE, “A food allergy is a medical condition in which exposure to a food triggers a harmful immune response. The immune response, called an allergic reaction, occurs because the immune system attacks proteins in the food that are normally harmless. The proteins that trigger the reaction are called allergens. Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction that is sudden in onset and can cause death.”
Just after I was born, within the first 48 hours, my mother noticed that I got sick after she ate a meatball sub sandwich. From then on, through her astute observation, she noticed that what she ate affected me through her breast milk. It was quite hard to miss because my diaper regularly showed that the food she ate went right through me. Remember that celebratory meatball sub at the hospital? The meatsauce dyed my poop blood red. The nurses at the hospital’s maternity ward said it was normal.
After bringing me home, the pattern continued. The first week past. Then the first month. Although my mom tried to bring this up to the pediatrician multiple times, he and the staff thought my mom was simply a hypochondriac, first time mother and completely dismissed her concerns. The doctor kept telling her that the explosive bowel movements were all normal and not to worry. Deep down, she knew something was not right and decided to keep a food journal of everything she ate and my reactions for a period of 2 months. In those two months, she eliminated dairy, citrus and tomatoes. It didn’t help that I was not sleeping much. I was gassy and pooped a lot. Just plain miserable. The pediatrician said to add solids to my breastmilk so I could sleep better. My mom, at the insistence of the pediatrician’s nurses, introduced me to Cheerios (disaster) and other regular foods. She saved egg and peanut butter for last. I wouldn’t eat egg. After I had refused it repeatedly, my mom decided to put it away. However, by that time, the hardboiled egg had brushed against my mouth and a rash instantly appeared. After that, the experiment ended there without proceeding to the peanut butter stage.
So, at the second month’s visit, she showed the pediatrician how she eliminated her diet of the offending foods and how my health improved. He immediately sent me to an allergist who confirmed I had a multitude of allergies and sensitivities. After that, I didn’t really eat until the age of two with the exception of crackers and cheerios and even those foods were causing me to have minor reactions. All I wanted was breast milk. At that point in my life, food was put into three categories: safe, potentially allergic and extremely allergic. The blood test had shown that I was severely allergic to peanuts and eggs; and moderately allergic to tree nuts, dairy, wheat, soy and peas – in that order. For a time, only meats, rice and leafy vegetables made the safe list. My mom was my biggest advocate, spending hours doing research on an archaic computer with dial up internet in the dead of night (better connection late at night with fewer users) and lots of experimentation trying to figure out what I could or couldn’t safely eat. She also spent many hours trying to source safe food from a very small pool of food available at the time and preparing me nutritious food from scratch. Because of the many challenges involved in finding and preparing safe foods, I was not able to enjoy a diverse range of foods until I was three, after I had passed my dairy challenge and wheat, soy and peas were no longer a threat.
Food allergies affect every part of my life. When I was younger, I was very anxious – can I swim safely at the pool? Can I eat or work safely at the table at school? If I played on the playground equipment at the park, will I have a reaction just from touch? This lifestyle is not a choice, but something I’m constantly dealing with 24/7. Starting when I was a toddler, I had to learn responsibility and how to manage having food allergies. My mom used to make me flashcards with the names of all the the things I was allergic to so I could learn to recognize the words and know if something was safe or not. Thankfully, I learnt to read at the age of two and was able to start reading ingredients on things for myself. Between the ages of two and five, I attended preschool. This meant that I had to learn how to advocate for myself and read ingredients of things with help from my mom. I also started carrying around my EpiPen and had to learn to remember to keep it with me at all times.
Allergies don’t just affect an individual, they affect the whole family. In a major case of irony, my family is a bunch of foodies. Living with food allergies was a big adjustment for the whole family because my parents and siblings love food. We love talking about it, making it, eating it and watching shows about it. Although I can’t always eat everything, I enjoy watching and helping the family to pick what they eat. In another stroke of irony, I actually learnt how to cook poached eggs via Youtube even though I will never be able to prepare or eat them. I sometimes feel bad for my siblings because they love eggs but aren’t able to eat them very often because of me. As a precaution, we don’t cook eggs at home because the protein residue is sticky, invisible and hard to remove without contaminating surfaces and utensils. My family eats eggs at restaurants but my three siblings have yet to eat nuts on too many occasions because it truly strikes fear in them. They don’t want to make me sick or cause me to have hives upon contact if they did eat nuts. After eating foods that contain my allergens, the family has a protocol of using a separate bathroom to brush their teeth, wash their hands and sanitizing their toothbrushes. They also know not to share food with me or kiss me for days afterwards.
It can be awkward at times trying to navigate social situations with allergies. Food is such an integral part of socialization and I don’t think people realize that. I used to hate having food allergies and how it made me different from everyone else. I don’t hate them anymore, but I still get self conscious sometimes when I go out and have to bring my own food or explain why I’m not eating. Sometimes, it’s tedious having to explain my allergies but I am grateful for the chance to educate people. It has also helped immensely that I have had supportive mentors and friends who have gone out of their way to look out for me and make me feel comfortable.
When I was about 12, I decided to stop eating out because I felt that it wasn’t worth risking my life for a restaurant meal following a few incidents. Since then, I have only eaten out maybe five times. My allergies are so severe that I can get a reaction through cross contamination. As an example, if someone’s food preparation gloves touched an egg wash and then touched my food, it would cause a reaction. In another scenario, if my food was prepared on the same surface as fresh pasta made with egg I would be in big trouble upon ingestion. If ingested, I would almost immediately have a reaction.
I had one very severe reaction when I was three and a half where I became unconscious and collapsed while playing with my brother. I had to be injected with an EpiPen and be taken to the hospital. Since then, I’ve had a few reactions that were of slightly lesser severity. During my less severe reactions, my symptoms include throwing up and having diarrhea for hours, shaking and having my heart feel like it would beat out of my chest because it was pounding so rapidly as well as being dizzy/having a headache. It’s really scary not knowing what’s going on with your own body and how badly it will react while you are having a reaction. Trying to stay calm while your body is experiencing extreme physical duress is mentally and physically draining and terrifying. You have to make yourself calm down because being frantic only exacerbates the symptoms which makes the reaction even worse.
What is a reaction? It is where the immune system reacts to a food ingredient which triggers the release of chemicals such as histame from cells in the body. It can cause symptoms such as itching or swelling in the mouth and throat, hives anywhere on the body, runny nose and eyes, reddening of the skin, feeling sick and diarrhoea and/or vomiting. In severe cases, it can cause a sudden feeling of weakness (caused by a drop in blood pressure) or breathing problems (your throat might start to swell up or close). The severe symptoms indicate an anaphylactic reaction and are life threatening.
Food allergies have taught me many things such as resilience, resourcefulness and creativity. I don’t dwell on the things I can’t eat or do; I always focus on the things that I can eat and can do. One of the things I enjoy is baking and I love creating my own recipes or modifying recipes to fit my family’s needs. I get immense satisfaction from being self reliant and being able to find and make delicious food that I can eat. I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. I want to live to the fullest the best I can.
A big thank you to all the teachers, mentors, friends and parents of my friends in my life for not only looking out for me and advocating for me but also accommodating my allergies and making sure I always felt included. I am so grateful for you all. ❤️
Do you have food allergies or know someone who does? Please feel free to leave any questions or comments you may have down below!