Food Allergies and Mental Well-Being
Food allergies can make you feel excluded from social occasions. Being prepared and communicating openly about your needs can help relieve anxiety and inspire confidence.
Guest post by Teen Advisory Group (TAG) member Audrey Cha
Welcome! My name is Audrey Cha, and I am a member of FARE’s Teen Advisory Group. After building up a platform on my @allaboutallergies Instagram and www.allaboutallergies.org website, participating in FARE’s Teen Talks, and making new friends who have allergies, I was inspired to write this post. In our most recent Teen Talk, I discovered that several teens faced the same concerns and anxieties that I have faced battling with food allergies. In this blog post I will explore how these concerns can impact our mental health and offer some tips on how to change our mindset in such distressing situations.
The food allergy community is filled with supportive people who understand the struggles that dietary restriction can pose on our daily lives. However, the general population who do not have allergies may be unaware of the difficulties we encounter. Even more overlooked is the idea that allergies can impact mental well-being, especially for teenagers.
To begin, let’s talk about one of the most dreaded social events for young teens with food allergies – birthday parties. Birthday parties are meant to be an enjoyable social event where we celebrate time together with friends and share experiences and food. Although most guests who attend parties can readily enjoy the food, people with food allergies cannot do so. Some may even dread birthday parties, as they feel that they will look like an outsider for bringing their own safe food or being the only one without a plate of birthday cake.
Encountering such demoralizing situations over and over again can definitely start to take a toll on mental health. We may begin to feel like we are different or don’t belong, and our self-esteem and self-confidence may drop. We may begin to avoid situations where we feel “different” and exclude ourselves from such activities. However, this feeling is most definitely not a good one, and there are methods to alleviate this situation.
Speaking from personal experience, I can say that I definitely was one of those people that used to feel embarrassed and excluded at birthday parties. However nowadays, parties are something that I look forward to. I have learned how to be confident, and I try not to let my allergies hold me back. Here are a few tips that have definitely helped me:
- Bring one of your favorite snacks or desserts that you will sincerely enjoy. Having something that you are looking forward to eating can help you to focus on your own food rather than the food of others.
- If somebody comments on your food or questions you about it, do not be afraid to explain your allergies. Being confident about how you are handling your allergies and owning this aspect of your life will help you not feel threatened by others.
- Try bringing extra food that you can share with some of your friends. By doing so, others without allergies can better understand your restrictions, and you will feel more included!
Another important topic is dining out at restaurants. Dining out with family or friends is supposed to be a way to enjoy good food without the burden of cooking it yourselves. However, many people with food allergies (including myself), would rather cook a homemade meal than risk a possible allergic reaction at a new restaurant. Although we can choose to avoid dining out in general, there are times when this decision is not an option. During family gatherings, business meetings and many types of social events, those with food allergies must adapt to the new situation and find ways to accommodate themselves. This extra concern often creates increased stress and worry, a very justifiable emotion, as the safety of our lives depends on the food we eat. There are so many different safety concerns to consider, such as:
- Cross contact in a dish that was supposedly allergen-free
- Hidden allergen in a dish
- A wrongly labeled dish
- Particles of food around your seating area and in the air
- Staff and chefs who are unwilling to accommodate your dietary needs
Just like with birthday parties, restaurant gatherings may lead to an increased feeling of exclusion. We may even begin to think that something is wrong with us for not being able to enjoy the same situations that most other people without allergies enjoy. However, we can work towards changing this negative mindset. Although I have yet to conquer these concerns and thoughts, I have gained some insight into what to do when I decide to dine out.
The best way that I can relieve my anxieties is to have thorough discussions with the event organizer and the food preparers about the severity of my allergies and my needs. I can print out FARE’s food allergy chef cards and list all of the allergies that I have. Next, I can speak with the waiter/waitress/host and have them inform the head chef or, better yet, speak to the head chef myself. Once I can be sure that there will be no cross contact, and I know exactly what I will be consuming, I feel much safer.
Once you find a couple of restaurants that you know are safe for you, I recommend going there again the next time you decide to dine out. For me, a very safe place to eat is Chipotle. They are always willing to change their gloves, and I have had no issues with cross contact for the past five years. My hope is that you will be able to feel less worried about dining at a new place and feel more confident to speak up about your needs.
Thank you for taking time out of your day to read this blog post! I hope that these tips can be of help to any teenagers who have felt the same way I have felt. Together, we can work towards taking control of our lives and our mental well-being.