Dating with Food Allergies, a Tricky Business

in Food Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

From the Allergic Living archives. First published in the magazine in 2010.

Their second date was supposed to be a lovely evening in, complete with takeout vegetarian sushi that he was to buy at a place she trusted with her life. The first time they ever met, Lori Medoff, a Montreal optometrist and divorced mother of two, told Kenny Webber, the new man in her life, about her severe allergy to fish. The entrepreneur accepted it as just another facet in what he hoped would become a relationship.

Only when Webber arrived that evening in November 2007 with the food, Medoff noticed to her horror that the sushi wasn’t vegetarian, salmon roe had been sprinkled on top. And she explained all over again that if even a hint of the tainted sushi passed her lips, her throat would close and she wouldn’t be able to breathe, never mind kiss him.

“The restaurant thought salmon eggs weren’t fish,” Webber said at the time. “Fish is fish,” Medoff had replied. So what did these two lovebirds do? Simple: they skipped the food and went straight to kissing.

Ah, the kiss. You know: that warm, flushed feeling as your lips part and lock with another’s, that flutter in your stomach and your heart beating a mile a – hey, wait a minute! Because if you have food allergies or celiac disease, some of these sensations may indicate a less than romantic physical response.

Consider this story from Sloane Miller, who last August brought a new guy and an allergy-safe restaurant dinner to her New York apartment. After dinner, as the pair held and kissed, Miller got itchy. When she looked in the mirror, she was alarmed to see hives on her skin, like a red, bumpy map of where his lips had been, around her mouth, on her cheeks, and along her neck, clavicle and right shoulder.

She couldn’t believe what was happening, and for a few frightening minutes, she blanked on what to do to stop the reaction. Now Miller is no novice when it comes to dating and food allergies. She is allergic to salmon, tree nuts, eggplant, melons, most tropical fruits and lemongrass.

Her interest in her condition, combined with her background as a psycho-therapeutic social worker, have led to a career as a food allergy coach and the basis for her popular blog, “Please Don’t Pass the Nuts.” But no matter the extent of her knowledge, she and her date couldn’t pinpoint the cause of her reaction. It had to be something. But what?

The next day, Miller’s GP and an allergist told her the cause was probably cashew residue caught in her date’s beard from a few nuts he’d eaten hours earlier. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, she could rattle off in her sleep safety measures for such a situation, but that evening she was rattled, period.

“Here I am, in my 30s and pretty capable when it comes to my allergies. But covered in hives and wheezing, I definitely had a moment of: ‘What do I do first here?’”

Welcome to the world of dating with food allergies or gluten intolerance. Think of it as alt dating, where preparedness is paramount and the difference of restricted diet dictates caution and truth, whether you like it or not. Even Miller, who knows the drill inside out, learned from her “mystery” reaction that minute particles of food do get caught in beards, on collars and in teeth, and can have a disastrous effect in the throes of kissing.

Others may spend time communicating in meaningful glances and words unspoken but, as Medoff’s and Miller’s experiences illustrate, you cannot. You can’t wait to be charmingly upfront and honest about your condition, no matter whether it’s an allergy to peanuts or the fact that gluten particles in something as mundane as a lipstick can cause you painful intestinal distress. You must take the lead.

Don’t Miss With the Kiss

Back in 2002, two allergists at the University of California at Davis published a survey that proved reactions to kissing aren’t uncommon. Among 379 people allergic to nuts, peanuts and seeds, they found 5.3 per cent had had allergic reactions, ranging from hives and itchiness, to swelling of the lips and throat, wheezing and anaphylactic reaction.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Rosemary Hallett, suspects the rate may even be higher since researchers didn’t specifically ask respondents about kissing reactions. Instead, people volunteered that information on questionnaires.

So how do you prevent a kiss reaction? Research shows that with peanuts, at least, a wait of 4½ to five hours between the non-allergic partner eating the food and kissing helps, as does that partner having another meal in between and vigorously brushing his or her teeth.

Still, Dr. Jennifer Maloney, co-author of a 2006 study on this subject, has said that the safest approach of all is for people who plan to be kissing to avoid eating anything their romantic partners are allergic to, period.

These are the rules: Never kiss, then tell. Instead, tell first, kiss safely – or don’t kiss at all.

Having the Big Talk

Finding a love match is fraught with ups and downs, with tried and failed Internet dating site connections and blind dates set up by well-meaning, if sometimes misguided, friends. Allergies simply add an important extra aspect to finding the right personal chemistry.

Andrea Shainblum of Montreal knows this well. She was single in her 20s and 30s, and dated a lot. Some men did not respond well to the fact she has severe allergies to sesame, peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. There was the boyfriend who swore off all foods that might kill her, only she’d find empty candy bar wrappers that carried the warning: “may contain traces of peanuts.”

Then, there was the doctor who, on their first (and only) date, appeared uncomfortable while Shainblum was telling the waiter about her severe food allergies and checking which menu items were safe. By the time the appetizers arrived, the doctor’s attitude had cooled perceptibly.

“He had an idea of the kind of person he wanted to be with, and someone with severe food allergies wasn’t part of the picture,” says Shainblum, who is now a married mother of a toddler. “I thought, ‘OK, next!’”

Miller, the allergy coach, has had mostly positive dating experiences. Still, like Shainblum, she notes that her dates’ responses to her allergies are as varied as the men themselves.

“Recently, I was out with another guy who kept interrupting me as I explained what do in an emergency. It was clear that he was uncomfortable. When I showed him my Benadryl, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘I know what that is.’ I didn’t see him again.”

Miller’s story raises another key issue of dating with allergies or celiac disease, namely, ‘the talk.’ The talk encompasses more than kissing. It’s about lifestyle and having to explain that the most severe form of food reaction, anaphylaxis, can be life-threatening and usually comes on swiftly.

Or that you have celiac disease and if you accidentally ingest gluten, you’re likely to get symptoms such as severe bloating or diarrhea or perhaps cramps that can make you double over. While any of those would make for a painful date, you’d also be damaging your small intestine, and affecting your ability to absorb nutrients.

As with kissing, this talk is better done at or near the beginning of a date. In the case of allergy, you have to show a date where you keep emergency numbers, your epinephrine auto-injector, and you have to demonstrate how to use that auto-injector. (Remember, without instruction, novices may mistake which end is up and inject themselves.)

As well, for either condition, being upfront with the talk will prevent your date making plans at a restaurant where you cannot possibly eat. Shainblum, Miller and Medoff all agree there is no easy or perfect way to broach “the talk”. Like the Nike slogan counsels, they say to “just do it.”

“When you’re out for a first time with someone and giving him instructions in how to use an auto-injector, that may not be romantic, but neither is being rushed to hospital,” says Miller.

Dating Eating OutThinkstock: ridofranz

Finding A Safe Dating Haven

At Zero8, a restaurant in Montreal’s trendy Latin Quarter, couples sit on the terrace on a balmy evening, sharing bottles of wine or quaffing gluten-free beers as they enjoy everything from garlicky bruscetta to Thai stir-fries, pasta and thick-cut French fries. This could be any bistro in this resto-rich city, complete with a “Z”-shaped, burnished wood bar, moody recessed lighting indoors and a pony-tailed, bespectacled owner who bustles around, making sure everything is perfect. But it isn’t.

Zero8 is so named because its menu is free of the eight main allergens: seafood (fish and shellfish), peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, milk, soya, eggs and wheat or any other grain that contains gluten, such as barley, oat, rye and triticale. Its kitchen staff is specially trained in preparing and handling food.

While Zero8 was the first on the continent to offer tis level of accommodation for food restrictions, it would be smart to find a couple of restaurants in your community where you trust the kitchen to prepare you a safe meal. Then they can become places to suggest to a date. Depending on the allergies or intolerances, such eateries are not always easy to locate.

The impetus for Zero8 arose from co-owner Dominique Dion’s own bad experiences eating out. He was getting sick in the best Montreal restaurants before his celiac disease was diagnosed. Tired, bloated, suffering eczema and frustrated that there was no restaurant for people like him, he and some partners opened Zero8 in February 2009. He acknowledges that keeping the premises as allergen- and gluten-free is a full-time job.

“It’s a challenge when we go see suppliers,” he says. “People don’t understand. They’ll ask me why I’m talking to them about allergies. And I explain to them very carefully why.”

Next: Teens Need to Be Taught to Think Twice