Food allergy help for grown-ups
March 1st, 2011
11:17 AM ET

Food allergy help for grown-ups

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."

soundoff (53 Responses)
  1. Elle B.

    Thank you Elizabeth! (and Sloane!) I'm an adult with food allergies (peanut and tree nut), and it effects my daily work and social life just as much as it affects children in school. I can't wait to read Sloane's book, because I know that I'm going to hear my life story on those pages, as well. Thanks for bringing attention to adults living with food allergies.

    March 1, 2011 at 11:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cosmo Nicastro

      http://www.compuworks.com The bookstore has a digital book on allergen awareness. It is designed for restaurant and hospitality industry, but information is educational for everyone

      March 1, 2011 at 18:59 | Report abuse |
  2. Lasciel

    Definitely a topic that deserves serious consideration! In recent years, I have found that restaurants are far more aware of food allergies and are taking them seriously. Although I have made it a habit to talk with staff and chefs when I go to a new restaurant, it's still easy to forget these things when you are out socially and that dish "looks safe". Just a few weeks ago I ordered a "safe dish", but before I started eating it I decided to talk to the chef cuz I had forgotten to earlier. Good thing I did because it did have a small unexpected amount of the food that causes anaphylaxis in me. A good reminder to never take anything for granted.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. George B

    When I found out I had a problem with Red Dye #40 I felt the same way – as if I couldn't participate in most normal activities. After a few unpleasant surprises (like discovering that Red 40 can be in dark chocolate foods to make them look richer) I decided to get proactive about the situation. I did my homework, learned about food labeling laws and started a website to share what I learned. I haven't had any "surprises" in a long time and the biggest surprise is how many other people have the same problem – thousands visit the website every month.

    The biggest help about becoming proactive is that I don't worry about what other people will think when I ask "what's in that BBQ sauce?" or when I turn down the chocolate birthday cake because I'm not sure I can trust who made it (even though I -love- chocolate!)

    March 1, 2011 at 12:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dave

      Monsanto poisons our milk and wheat. Research it and see how they are basically bio-terrorists. Its so surprise that the FDA encompasses Food AND drugs. Poison the food, give out drugs to counter affects. I myself have experienced this now and many others are learning the truth. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's all the way.

      March 1, 2011 at 14:07 | Report abuse |
    • Violetta

      I have the same problem, George, except that I'm instead allergic to methyl... which is, ofc, the main ingredient in red dye #40. Heck, I've seen Red Dye #40 used in white cake mixes... much much rather be safe than sorry.

      March 2, 2011 at 13:25 | Report abuse |
  4. KED72

    I guess the message is pretty clear if he goes ahead and orders the salmon.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Ray

    I am allergic to sulfar and I feel people who don't suffer from allergies often dismiss your symptoms as exaggeration until my face starts to swell or I break out in a rash. I more often suffer severe headaches than anything.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RadTech01

      My in-laws like to say "Well, he doesn't have to eat it." I love that approach. It just kills me when people say that.

      March 1, 2011 at 13:42 | Report abuse |
    • D

      The correct spelling is "sulfur".

      March 1, 2011 at 13:47 | Report abuse |
  6. Zack

    I have an extremely severe dairy allergy, and I think the solution to living in a mostly allergy free world really comes down to two points.
    1. DON"T BE EMBARRASSED! No one is perfect, and just because your issue involves food doesn't mean that you are better or worse than anyone else. at restaurants, don't be afraid to say to the waiter/waitress "I'd like that with no cheese please, I have an allergy." People are more than willing to help 99.99999% of the time. If they get it wrong, simply be polite when pointing out the mistake, chance are.... IT WAS A MISTAKE!
    2. LIVE YOUR LIFE. Take a risk once in a while, go out, without seeing the menu first. I have about 1 or 2 run ins per year, but for every problem I run into I find about 3 or 4 NEW things!!!! If you don't take risks you can't learn and you can't find new things. Carry your Epipen or antihistamine with you just in case, but never taking a risk simply confines you more and feeds into those "embarrassing moments".

    Ps. I have the number to 911 memorized just in case.

    March 1, 2011 at 12:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      While it's great that you are willing to take risks with your body, I do not think its right for you to advocate that on this site. I suffer from Dairy and Seafood allergies. I know what it’s like to have to stab myself with the pen and have to run to the hospital. I also know how it can scare family and friends to see me gasping for breath. No food, I do not care how great it is, is worth the pain, trauma and just plain scariness of having an episode that requires the pen.

      March 1, 2011 at 14:33 | Report abuse |
    • Julie

      I think it's stupid to go to a resteraunt an just order something off the menu without checking ingredients first, but its also stupid to never take a risk and only eat in your own house. I used to carry food in my purse all the time and would eat that in a resteraunt while my friends ate out, now I realize it's no fun that way, and as long as there is SOMETHING on the menu that I can have, I might as well enjoy myself every once in a while!

      March 1, 2011 at 20:47 | Report abuse |
  7. Robert

    Food allergies present challenges at my house. We have always been careful to label everything coming into the house. We just found some cool new food storage containers called SafeKeepers that help us to keep food segregated.

    March 1, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • WHAT

      Food bigot!

      March 1, 2011 at 14:04 | Report abuse |
    • Robert

      Maybe. But they at least appear to be equal.

      March 6, 2011 at 13:40 | Report abuse |
  8. Burbank

    I hate closeup pictures of people eating. Gross!

    March 1, 2011 at 13:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Jim

    I recommend the ImmuneTech food and allergy test that you can buy at http://www.healthhometest.com. Very quick and easy.

    March 1, 2011 at 13:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Heidi

    I discovered I had food allergies in my mid-twenties when I started getting swellings. It literally took about 8 years and countless allergists to get the proper delayed reaction food allergy tests done. Once I found out I was allergic to gluten, dairy, and eggs I changed my diet and got rid of the swellings. I can relate to a lot of what was written in this article (like not trying to make waves about my food allergies, but finally realizing, I have to be open about this). Anyway, my friend was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, and based on all of this we started eatingfreedom.org a Web site resource for people with allergies to gluten, dairy, eggs and nuts. I hope to see more articles like this one on mainstream Web sites like CNN

    March 1, 2011 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anna

      Im in the same boat. Developed food allergies just last year and Im in my 20's. I would venture to say that a large percentage of Americans have under treated food allergies and they are lied to by their doctors. Its not just hives and bumps. It can manifest itself through indigestion, stomach pains, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, etc. The doctors dont want you to know this because they want to give you a pill for each ailment that the food allergen triggers.

      Research, research, research. Thats what i have done because the doctors will NOT give you the truth.

      March 1, 2011 at 14:09 | Report abuse |
  11. MS23

    Have any of you heard of AAT (Advanced Allergy Theraputics)? I had a lifelong allergy to potatos and with one session, I was cured and now eat them all the time. I was skeptical and now believe in it as it also has helped with my Pollen as well.

    March 1, 2011 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. D

    There are even physicians (specialists in this very field) that will tell me that food allergies in adults are very rare. How do I know so many adults with food allergies then, including myself? My favorite story about unexpected ingredients is when I went to a restaurant, ordered ravioli and they came slathered in avocado. No mention of avocado whatsoever on the menu for this dish and who the heck would anticipate that? I sent it back saying that the ingredient was not on the menu, and they remade the dish for me. SO annoying, but the only other choice is to have to do a litany of your allergies every time and that can get really old after a while. I read the menu carefully and if there is a questionable ingredient, I ask. But we can't be mind readers. Chefs-have accurate menus!!!

    March 1, 2011 at 13:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dont Trust Your Doctors

      Drug companies are making a KILLING off of our symptoms by being poisoned in our food supply. I cut out dairy and no longer need asthma medication and headache pills. Get to the source of the issue.

      March 1, 2011 at 14:11 | Report abuse |
  13. Alice

    Wait! The person who wrote this entry said they thought food allergies should be kept quiet! How stupid! Why in the world would anyone actually think that! Where you against ingredient labeling too!

    March 1, 2011 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. carol

    I am done with people who say things like, "you could just eat a little". Why do they think it's OK to risk my health? Do they have no empathy? Do they want to see an adverse reaction?
    The kind of person who tries to get an allergic person to eat a food that can make them sick must truly have something wrong with them. It borders on the sadistic, don't you think? If they(or their child) started wheezing or swelling up from certain foods, they surely would be just as cautious as I am!
    I promise I won't be nice next time I am told to just "eat a little". Geez!

    March 1, 2011 at 15:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Cathy W

    People seem puzzled by the "keeping it quiet/non-disruptive" comment. It is due to the idea that one person's allergies shouldn't disrupt the lives of non-allergic people. You should see the anger parents display when they are told not to send peanut butter in their children's lunches (as if their child cannot eat anything else???). It's "not right for the one kid to force everyone else to behave a certain way." Me, I don't get it. It seems like such a small thing to not send a food that is a deadly poison to another child. We are a community, and we work together to get along. I am fortunate to not have any dietary allergies (not anymore – I outgrew numerous ones that I had as an infant). Rather, I am allergic to the venom of all stinging insects. Bees, wasps, yellow jackets, hornets. I'm not allergic to fire ants, but likely only because I've never lived in the south. Having gone through anaphylaxis and spent a couple of hours in the ER, being given epinephrine and benedryl and steroids, and then felt utterly dead from the crash the next day, I can only say that it's a tiny thing to not send peanuts in a lunch, to keep a child from having to go through that. It's awful. I've been (and am going) through treatment, so will likely not react again. DIetary allergies have got to be a far worse disruption to someone's life.

    March 2, 2011 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Donnie

    I have Celiac and must avoid all gluten containing foods. And I'm severely allergic to corn and sulfites, in any form and any amount. They are not properly labeled in food products, and non-food products so it's almost impossible to avoid them. I never eat out in restaurants or even in other people's homes. There is no way that I would be safe from gluten or my severe food allergens.

    March 2, 2011 at 10:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. rencontre cougar

    Merci thechart.blogs.cnn.com.

    March 3, 2011 at 03:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. DELICARDO foodie

    Has anyone here tried using foodcards when dining out before? They can make life a lot easier for the staff (if they are clear) and the allergy sufferers. Maybe they can also be given to prospective boyfriends/girlfriends?


    March 3, 2011 at 09:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. karen Harris

    I too have severe nut allergies and I write a blog called nut allergy mum. Please have look as it is for children as my sons has a severe Peanut allergy and for adults as well. http://www.nutallergymum.com

    March 27, 2011 at 22:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Allergic1

    I'm alletgic to a lot of foods – mushrooms, beans, raw vegetables, raw nuts and now certain shellfish (bivalves mostly). The day i couldn't eat mussels marinara anymore was like a death in the family. I find that as i get older more foods don't react well with me. Pretty soon there will be noting left.

    June 20, 2011 at 14:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. marcia

    PF Chang's is the worst offender for MSG!!!

    June 20, 2011 at 15:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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      July 19, 2012 at 16:07 | Report abuse |
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    20 years of taking zyrtec and countless allergist who NEVER tested me for food allergies. Ate Dannon Activa yogurt 4x in 3 years and probiotic supplements and within 24 hours had severe cornea ulcers which almost cost me my viision. I eliminated all yeast, probiotic food from my diet on my own and mysteriously I stopped the severe allergy attacks every morning, as well as the colitis every day. Almost every single food in the super market has yeast extract in it. Expensive and hard to find anything to eat. Every can of soup, every frozen food, every salad dressing, rice mixes, on and on and on. It is so unreal to have to diagnose yourself when the doctors fail to listen to you. I told the eye dr I had an autoimuune disorder of the spine – anklosing spondyolosis and fibromyalgia and could the probiotics and lactobacillius be making me ill- he looked at me like I was nuts. Googled it and found wikipedia and many other articles saying people with
    AK and other autoimmune disorders should never eat these probiotics and yeast products. So called "good" bacteria turns and attacks the healthy cells in my body.

    July 18, 2012 at 19:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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