On Claiming an Allergy You Don’t Have

by Ms. Joy

This morning, I had two very interesting conversations and one precipitated the other. A lovely young woman I have had the pleasure of meeting in person retweeted something that made my heart stop. In effect, the original tweeter made it clear that if you are vegan and at a restaurant, feel free to say you’re allergic to various foods. If you or someone you love is an allergy sufferer I’m sure your heart just stopped too. You know what that entails, the culture of disbelief, the apathy and potential danger. If you do not, you may wonder why I was upset or think I’m over-reacting because you’ve done the same. Don’t like scallops? Tell them you’re allergic! Then order the shrimp (yes, happened to me in my serving days). There are several problems with this scenario.

If you are misusing the term “allergic” you are setting the stage for the public to continue thinking allergy sufferers are making it up, because honestly, some of them obviously are. There is a culture of disbelief around allergies, a lax dismissal that allergy sufferers are being petulant brats. I can assure you this isn’t (wholly) true but people with food allergies and intolerances really cannot eat that food, no matter if you think they can.

To say you’re allergic to a given food (and this is for people without allergies) encourages a culture that, in some cases already, views allergies with suspicion and disbelief; there are many people who do not believe an allergy to be true.  The community has spent years breaking down the misconceptions about allergies and whether or not food preparers and servers (be it in a restaurant or home) should acknowledge and take them seriously – the answer is yes, always. If servers are constantly told (and they are) about allergies to “this but not that” and it is clear the patron is really just trying to make substitutions where it is usually not allowed, those servers will quickly become apathetic about allergies. Even if you do not think it true, this really does jeopardize the health of allergy sufferers.

Before we get too far into it, I do think we should clear up a few important facts about food allergies:

A food allergy is an immunological response to an allergen such as gluten, dairy, eggs or shellfish and is characterized by your sinus cavity flooding (sexy), hives, watery eyes and extreme situations, anaphylaxis. An allergy is specific and it’s bad. If you have a wheat allergy (or not), you should check out Jeanne at Art of Gluten Free Baking for some insight and gorgeous recipes – the title of her blog is not without merit, she does create gluten free art.

A food intolerance is typified by gastrointestinal freakout, skin issues, migraines, respiratory upset like a mucus build up or wheezing. It is not a true allergy in the sense that it does not include the immunological response but this does not mean it should be taken any less seriously, the symptoms are wide ranging and cause horrible discomfort. My daughter, the very sweet Miss N suffers from a severe intolerance to cow’s milk products. If she were given even a small amount she will soon have a number of digestive problems that will last well into the next day, mucus build up, a compromised immune system and terrible leg pain. It is frightening to see your child suffer through these symptoms, believe me.

The second conversation I had was with my daughter. I gently asked her how she feels about her dairy intolerance. This year, with her introduction to school she has suddenly been plunged into a world dominated by cow’s milk. It’s in the other children’s lunches, at every event and it’s in the cafeteria. We have been very fortunate in that her teacher is very accommodating and knowledgeable (she always asks) and she has always made sure Miss N had an alternative, whether from home or through her.

Miss N: “Well, sometimes when I see C with cow cheese strings, I wish I could have some. But, then I think about it and know I can’t, and that’s okay. I don’t want to get sick”.

My girl makes a very good point and she also used a very important word: “can’t”. You see, she cannot have cow’s milk. There was never a choice in the matter for her, it is not about a belief system; it is about  health. If you are making the choice not to eat certain foods you will not be plunged into physiological and immunological hell. Your heart will be hurt and your mind bruised but you can get through your day comfortably, Miss N and people like her cannot. “Will not” does not equal “can not”.

There are many obstacles to eating healthfully when a whole sub-sect of food is cut off from you. It also happens that you need everyone, from your family and friends to food preparers and servers to believe you when you say you are allergic to that food. Sometimes your life depends on it. Misusing the term “allergy” perpetuates the myth that allergy sufferers are making it up because they just don’t like or have chosen not to eat a food – this is wrong. Miss N would give anything to eat milk chocolate, my husband to eat a big slice of pizza.

If you are concerned about contamination from foods you do not eat for religious, societal or personal beliefs, educate the people in your life. Please don’t take the one word we need to keep ourselves and loved ones safe, it doesn’t do anyone any favours. I do understand where you are coming from and that you wholeheartedly deserve to have someone respect your beliefs, as a former server, know that I always appreciated honesty than a lie (I’m not the only one). This is a matter of education, spread the word about your beliefs! We will all be better for it.

Anecdotal fun stuff: A little girl came into my sushi restaurant with her friend’s parents. At 7, she was too shy to tell me she ate kosher so it was up to her friend’s mom. Fortunately I knew what to do to keep that girl happily fed without any disruption to her afternoon or beliefs. Why? Because other patrons following a kosher diet had helped educate me instead of shutting down those vital lines of communication.

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