On Claiming an Allergy You Don’t Have

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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12 thoughts on “On Claiming an Allergy You Don’t Have

  1. MrsHix says:

    What a wonderful article!
    As a former server myself I took every allergy seriously and still do! My best friend has an intolerance to the protien in cows milk. She educated us and as an avid cheese eater and 1L per day milk drinker, we changed our routine to make her feel welcome no matter what was on our table when she comes to visit.
    It bothers me to hear people say they aren’t really allergic and they just dont like that particular food.
    Whenever anyone stated they had an allergy at the restaurants I worked at I began to ask our guest questions. “how sever? Is it by smell? Taste? Touch? Anaphalactic? Do you have an epi pen?” this worked well when weeding out choice and can’t.
    Fantastic article!

    • Ms. Joy says:

      Why thank you, Mrs. Hix! The kids and hubby (I think you know him ;)) are also intolerant of casein, that milk protein, which makes avoiding all cow’s milk vital. They can’t even eat soy cheese safely because it contains casein. Weirdly enough, they can have goat products which has been a life-saver.

      I agree, it always bothered me before when people would lie about an allergy and then I got married and had kids with legitimate intolerances. Now, I know how important that honesty is. Also, the worst complainers (in my serving experience) has come from people who are using the term “allergy” to get their own way. That doesn’t do anyone any favours and definitely leads to more stigma around people who have allergies. We need that honesty because the majority of allergy sufferers (it just so happens that not everyone is without fault) are very clear about their dietary needs, kind and firm always works.

      I like your questions, it also allows you to gauge the seriousness of the allergy and how stern you need to be with the kitchen! Not that we want contamination but if someone’s throat will close up, that’s something you need to know. It’s not that you’ll slip the food to a person who is faking it (or even suffers from a mild sensitivity – they deserve not to be contaminated) but you can take a deep breath and relax. The little girl who was kosher, that was not an allergy so we didn’t need to disinfect every surface and prepare her food with new utensils. That is something you’d do for a person with an anaphylaxis allergy.

      Thanks Mrs. Hix! Did you know Milamodo is no more? Where will we run into one another?

  2. nataliejoan says:

    Interesting. I have a severe intolerance to shrimp, crab & lobster. (Within about 30 minutes I will be violently ill.) I have trouble describing it, because it is not an allergy, but often people misunderstand that “intolerance” is also very serious, so I will call it one.
    Which usually leads to me avoiding any and all seafood I don’t prepare myself. Just to be sure.

    • Ms. Joy says:

      My kids are dairy intolerant, not allergic to dairy. I’ve found it very clear to say they “cannot have milk or butter or cheese, can you point me at what they can have?”. You’re right, it’s pretty common that people won’t understand that an intolerance is still quite serious. Being honest and saying flat out that you cannot eat the food should be enough. You deserve to eat healthfully and safely when you are out, and I do understand how difficult it is to get the information across. At home, I’ve always strived to recreate the food my kids can’t have when we’re out and you’re right, we have to do that just to be sure.

      By the way, you absolutely have an intolerance, don’t be afraid to say it! I do understand why you will say allergy, it is easier and you do have a physical reaction that jeopardizes your health. My issue is with people who have chosen, whether based on moral, religious or because they simply don’t like the food who use the term “allergy”. People with intolerances and allergies do not have any choice in the matter and we need to be able to trust our food preparers/servers. People who lie about it break down that trust in situations that are sometimes life-threatening. Most servers will understand and will help you out.

  3. Heavenly Housewife says:

    You know, I was watching an old episode of Sex in the City last week where the same issue was mentioned. Carrie hated parsley so she just told the waiter she was allergic. Silly that people feel that they have to go to these kind of measures. I totally agree with you. Most servers are more than happy to make you happy!
    *kisses* HH

  4. Susan says:

    This is such a wonderful comment on food allergies and dietary restrictions. I really feel like American society is coming along well in recognizing, acknowledging, and respecting various dietary issues … you are SO correct in urging your readers in being forthright and honest in dealing with restaurant servers and chefs… the case of the boy crying ‘Wolf!’ will only set back progress being made in menu accommodations, sensitivity and understanding of business owners and servers.

    • Ms. Joy says:

      Thank you! Dishonesty about any menu accommodations you need,and I am thinking of people who are making food eliminations based on choice make it worse for everyone with limitations. There is space here for more awareness and education around dietary restrictions, piggybacking on another issue (allergies, in this case) makes it more difficult for everyone with food restrictions (chosen or not).Thanks for stopping by, and your insight.

  5. Shirls says:

    My hubby has a lot of severe food allergies, he carries double epi-pens and they only give us time for the ambulance to show up. Its a very serious matter and it truly picks my ass when someone just doesn’t like something and tries to get out of it by claiming its an allergy. For us this is life and death, don’t take the one word away from us that relays the true danger. btw – his most severe allergy? mushrooms, everyone is always stunned at this but then I ask them, “how many people do you know who are allergic to dust and mold?” and that always gets a response.

  6. Steve says:

    If the North American system had freedom, then yes, people wouldn’t have to lie, but that is not the case, vegans don’t want something, so they lie to the system, otherwise they’ll be forced a lot of the time to get something they don’t want

  7. scatteredmom says:

    I have Oral Allergy Syndrome. Which means that I likely won’t die if I eat the things that give me reactions, but I will be very uncomfortable. The list is fairly long and it becomes quite interesting when I’m eating out or am at a potluck, conference with a buffet, etc. My worst offenders? Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts. Sometimes I don’t react at all, sometimes I have a HUGE reaction.

    It seems at though the only way that I can really get people to recognize that I really can’t eat the offending foods is call it an allergy. I truly can’t eat fresh peaches-if I do, my neck breaks out into welts and I become so itchy that I am clawing at myself. My throat swells slightly and becomes severely itchy as well. I always specify once I say “allergy” that mine is really a cross reaction, that I won’t die, but I really can’t eat the offending food. Irony? I CAN eat peaches if they are cooked-which I will tell people. The cooking process destroys the protein that my body reacts to. So peach pie, for the wiin!

    However, I have been told by an allergist that repeated exposure to some of those foods can eventually cause me to develop anaphylaxis, so it is possible. I agree that people have to be forthright about their allergies/intolerances, etc. Every single time I mention that I “can’t eat tree nuts” people panic until I more fully explain.

    What drives me nuts is people who then try to ‘teach’ me how to ‘cure’ my ‘allergy’. I’ve had it for 15 yrs, had allergy shots, it’s still there. I am severely allergic to pollen, and that’s why I have the issues I do-but I don’t need people to try to cure me.

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