March 1st, 2011
11:17 AM ET
My attitude toward my food allergies used to be: Keep it as private and non-disruptive to others as possible. But I started to rethink that when I began reading a blog by Sloane Miller, a social worker with food allergies who has turned her passion for eating safely into a public and altruistic career.
Miller has lived with food allergies all her life. She's widely known as "Allergic Girl," author of the blog "Please Don't Pass the Nuts." She has used her know-how about dining out with food allergies to organize "Worry Free Dinners," which are groups of people with food allergies going to a restaurant together and sharing experiences and strategies. In her day job, Miller coaches people with dietary restrictions such as food allergies in overcoming their fears and navigating everyday situations.
Now, she's got a book out called "Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well with Food Allergies" that offers honest, personal and practical advice for anyone who has life-threatening dietary restrictions. The book has three main components: how to get an accurate diagnosis and understand it, how to create a support system and how to live a full life with food allergies. Sprinkled throughout are personal stories from Miller and others who have had to confront obstacles to eating normally because of food allergies (Disclaimer: two vignettes are mine).
"We all think we’re alone, and yet we all are in this together," Miller said. "We feel too shy or ashamed to talk about what we need, or we feel like we’re going to be shamed by other people. And all of that happens. And there is a way to move through it, to move beyond it, to use it to your advantage."
With a documented rise in food allergies in recent years, there's been an outpouring of support for children with food allergies, with schools instituting peanut-free zones at lunch and promoting greater awareness of the condition. Nearly 4% of U.S. children and teenagers under age 18 have food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But what happens for adults in the real world, when there aren't special tables to sit at?
If you suspect you have allergies to certain foods, you should have an allergy test done by a board-certified allergist and make sure you understand your diagnosis fully, Miller said. Unfortunately, while a doctor can recommend foods to avoid, there is no test that will tell you if eating those foods will make you stop breathing or create a small annoying bump on your lip. You just have to play it safe and have your medication on you at all times.
Playing it safe is something that Miller knows all about. She has formulated specific strategies for everything from restaurants to dates to parties at other people's homes.
For instance, if you have food allergies and are about to go on a first date with someone, and there may be a kiss on the horizon, you may need to think about what that person has eaten that day and be upfront about your needs, since some people are so sensitive that they can have a reaction from residue from offending foods still in the mouth. In fact, research presented an allergy conference in November suggests that another person's saliva can be problematic for an allergic person even hours after eating and brushing one's teeth. But that's not true for everyone. It's crucial to know your diagnosis and your personal level of comfort.
"If I’m out to dinner and someone, and it’s a guy that I want to kiss, and he’s about to order salmon, I will say, 'If you order that salmon I can’t kiss you later,'" she said. "I find that in my dating life, that people around me appreciate that level of clarity and communication."
A catered event for work can also be challenging for people with food allergies. While many people get giddy about trying different dishes in buffets, they can be a nightmare for people with food allergies because there's no way to know what's in anything. Miller recommends communicating your needs to the person organizing the event as early as possible, and even asking to speak to the caterer directly. E-mail a list of the foods you cannot eat, but also suggest items that are safe - for instance, "I can't eat shrimp but I can eat chicken or beef." If you have doubts, bring your own food.
"You want to focus on the focus of the event," Miller said.
Miller's bottom line is: Never take a risk.
"This is the goal of the book: to go out and live your life in the best way that you can, where you are right now," she said. "I think this book will really help a lot of people to even see that there’s a choice."
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