Trendy Diets Can Be a Mixed Blessing When You’re Managing Food Allergies

A guest blog post by Teen Advisory Group member Amanda Young.

As a California-raised teenager who is allergic to dairy, eggs, nuts and shellfish, I’ve noticed that new diets and dietary trends - vegan, paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free, and more - and the prevalence of food intolerances have been both a blessing and a curse. The best part about these diets is that they are prompting more conversations about food, leading to more options in restaurants. Many restaurants, from Chipotle to a California favorite, True Food Kitchen, will identify menu items that are vegan, gluten-free and more.

Bakeries that do not intentionally cater to people with dietary restrictions often have options for me and my sister, who shares most of my allergies and is also gluten-free. Entire bakeries are also dedicating themselves to serving only vegan and gluten-free goods. When my family visits Los Angeles, we always go to a bakery that is strictly dairy-free, egg-free, gluten-free, and nut-free, and being able to choose anything from the menu is quite thrilling. So, bring on vegan and gluten-free diets, I say!

However, with these eating habits becoming the rage, it has become easy to disregard those with medical dietary restrictions. While I do not wish to trivialize these diets, food allergies are not a trend, nor are they something to be taken lightly. Moreover, these diets have created a new challenge: sometimes, people will hear me listing off my restrictions, and immediately (and prematurely) jump to conclusions.

“You don’t eat dairy or eggs? Are you vegan? We have a vegan dish,” a waiter will say.

“Oh, does it have any nuts in it?” I’ll ask.

“It has almonds in it. But vegans eat nuts, don’t they?”

Vegans do eat nuts - but I can’t.

Earlier this summer, my family braved the seventeen-hour flight to Singapore to visit relatives. Due to the length of the flight, the airline served two meals, which we were asked to select online, prior to the trip. However, because the only options for dietary-restriction meals were vegan, low sodium, vegetarian, nut-free, low lactose, low fat, diabetic, and gluten-free, we had to call the airline’s office. The airline informed us that we could try the vegan meal, but when my mom asked if it was also nut-free, they told us to order the nut-free meal instead; when we asked if that meal had dairy, eggs, or shellfish, they told us to try the vegan meal. When we arrived in Singapore, my dad went to the airline’s office in-person to try to confirm our meals for the flight home, but his experience was similar. 

It’s difficult for people without allergies to understand that choosing not to eat certain foods and being physically unable to eat certain foods are vastly different. And, it’s often hard to see past the many diets and health trends that have become popular in recent years. In addition to diets, food allergies and food intolerances are frequently confused. One of my close friends is lactose-intolerant, but she loves yogurt so much that she has a cup of it every day for lunch. In contrast, my milk allergy sits at a high class IV; if I were to eat a dairy product, my reaction could range from hives to anaphylactic shock. Of course, we must respect and try to fulfill everybody’s dietary needs and preferences. But, it is especially important to do so when someone’s life literally depends on it.