Dating with Food Allergies, a Tricky Business

in Food Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

Teens Need To Think Not Drink

“Why?” is a question teenagers ask their parents all the time. Or, more commonly, “why not?” as they lobby for greater freedoms. But with their peers,  teens sometimes don’t say anything at all for fear of not fitting in. For those with allergies, that can have disastrous consequences. They’ll want to tag along to Dairy Queen or another fast-food place because their friends are going. They need to be overtly reminded of the allergy risks.

Sage Lachman, a 15-year-old ace drummer from Vancouver with a peanut allergy, has even been to concerts where she notes: “It seems like everyone is making out.

“If you’re under the influence of drugs and alcohol, you’re not thinking about your allergy to peanuts,” Sage says, sounding older than her years. “The best thing to do if you go to one of these social events is don’t get drunk and don’t make out.”

Dr. Scott Sicherer, a leading researcher at the Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, makes the same point to all of his adolescent and teen patients. Since dating safely is part of food allergy management in general, he doesn’t lecture, but rather engages his patients in a discussion that tackles high-risk topics head on, from drugs to kissing and more.

What would the teen do if at a party and the object of her dreams is pressuring her to make out? Or if someone tries to give the teen a drink? Invariably, he tells them of one no-nonsense female patient who figured out that if she spoke to her dates about her allergies from the get-go, the ones who really cared about her, or at least really wanted to kiss, would make sure not to jeopardize her health.

“Because if someone cares about you, they wouldn’t want to make you sick,” Sicherer says. “Advance planning is one great way to relieve the peer pressure. And don’t drink alcohol. It only makes you let your guard down.”

Sage, whose parents are always telling her never to drop her guard, had that life lesson reinforced last August during an end of session celebration at a summer camp in the Okanagan Valley. Sage and her date planned to dance the night away, but their plans were foiled at the start. As hors d’oeuvres were served outside the dining hall, her date, who is allergic to legumes, bit into a samosa that contained peas.

“He tapped me on my shoulder, said, ‘I have to go get my EpiPen’ and ran back to his cabin. I guess he thought the samosa was a spinach and cheese pie,” she recalls. “I told the staff, and the camp director, the doctor and two nurses all sprinted after him.” She spent their romantic dinner sitting next to an empty chair.

“It was kind of sad,” she says. “There was also a poster with a big heart that couples were having their photo taken in front of. That kind of sucked, too.”

The experience made Sage more determined than ever. “I don’t eat anything when I don’t know exactly what’s in it, and I never go anywhere without my EpiPen.”

It’s sage advice (so to speak), as is that from Lisa Ferlaino, a communications student from Montreal’s West Island. Last summer, she registered with eHarmony, the online dating website, because she was ready for a serious relationship with someone who would accept that she wanted a family and a career. In her profile, she didn’t mention her allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy and legumes. It wasn’t because she was hiding anything; there simply wasn’t a place for it.

Soon, Lisa was corresponding with an apprentice electrician. They had similar interests and goals and when she e-mailed him about her allergies, his response was that her health came first. “And then I found out that his mom is a nurse,” says Ferlaino, “and I was like, ‘this is good.’”

On their first date, at a coffee shop near her home, they spoke of family, their mutual love of tennis and Ferlaino’s health challenges. And for three weeks, they texted each other continuously. But when he returned from a family holiday in the Mari-times, they weren’t clicking like they had been. “There was no spark,” she says. “I deserve spark.”

So do you. Don’t settle. Allergies or not, you will kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince or princess, and there are happy endings. Medoff and Webber, for instance, have been together for going on two years, while Shainblum met Mark Shainblum, whom she would marry, when she was least expecting it.

In the spring of 2002, Shainblum had just moved back to Montreal after 15 years in Toronto. She began corresponding with Mark via e-mail over a professional writers’ website. He was interested in the same things – science fiction, astronomy and history – and she agreed to meet him at a busy west end mall, thinking he’d be a new friend.

After they introduced themselves at the mall’s book sale table, she suggested they buy some Cokes and stroll around the neighborhood. That’s when Andrea explained to him why they couldn’t meet in a cafe.

They started dating and six months later, Mark, now 47, threw out everything in his apartment that she was allergic to, including bachelor staples like bagels and peanut butter, and put all his dishes and utensils through the heavy wash cycle of a borrowed portable dishwasher – twice.

“What was the option?” he asks. “I knew I wanted to be with her. We all come with baggage. I had a girlfriend years ago who broke up with me because I wasn’t tall enough. But if you care about someone, you work around these issues. I won’t deny it gets frustrating. But it’s worth it.”

Andrea, whom he married in November 2003, says of his house purge: “I knew he was a keeper when he did that. It was the most romantic thing he could have done.”

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Originally published in Allergic Living magazine. Click here and subscribe.