“Does this contain gluten?” my friend asks our waitress, quite seriously, at our group weekend brunch. She is on a detox-health craze diet that encourages minimizing gluten. It’s a choice that has become so widespread and popular, not so much a fad as it is a lifestyle.
“Yes, actually,” our waitress adding: “Is it an allergy?”
“Yeah,” my friend says nonchalantly, “but – it’s OK this time.” Our waitress, clearly confused, writes down the order with hesitation. I stare at my friend in surprise.
Had she just done what I thought? Faked a food allergy? For what purpose? It’s one thing for a non-allergic person to ask what ingredients a dish contains, or to ask for a substitution on a dish, but it’s a whole other thing to pretend to have a food allergy, especially when you’re not going to treat it seriously.
My Issues with Faking
I have actually always wanted my friends to ‘adopt an allergy’ to peanuts and tree nuts (my allergies), for a day. I think they would find it a lot more difficult than they expect: reading food labels, carrying auto-injectors, asking about the ingredients of dishes at restaurants before ordering. It takes effort to live safely with food allergies.
Even though I’m used to putting in that effort for so long that I don’t even notice it anymore, I think it’s important that other people understand that. Also, when I do this on a daily basis, I don’t get to choose when I’d “like” to have food allergies, and when I don’t.
Bad Messaging to Servers
What upset me most about this fake food allergy fiasco was that it must have confused our waitress, which in turn does a disservice to people with real food allergies. In an ideal world, our server has been trained to respond in a particular manner when a customer alerts her of their food allergies, and hopefully that manner is serious and respectful.
If she’s getting mixed messages from a customer who claims to have a food allergy, but then in the same breath says it’s OK to eat her allergen this one time, that sends confusing and incorrect information about the severity of food allergies to restaurant staff.
It can be hard for non-allergic people to understand the severity of food allergies. The very idea that a food one person enjoys can kill another is, admittedly, very strange. But it is a real and serious phenomenon. When people don’t treat it as such, like my friend didn’t, misinformation is propagated that can lead to serious consequences. It’s never OK for me to eat my allergen, since even a trace amount can cause a serious allergic reaction.
Watching what you eat, sticking to a diet, and trying to be healthier are important initiatives in a person’s life, but using a food allergy to get you there is not the route to go. I was disappointed that my friend would pretend to have an allergy to gluten instead of simply saying she is “going gluten-free,” especially in my presence and knowing how serious my food allergies are. That said, I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to fake a food allergy.
Planning to Speak Up
I never confronted my friend about this incident, but what it proved to me was that there is still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding food allergies, even by young people who have grown up in schools with strict food allergy policies.
If it happens again, I know I’ll say something to her, just to reinforce the idea that food allergies are serious, and need to be treated as such – and that I don’t think it’s appropriate for her to pretend to have a food allergy when it suits her needs.
What this incident also proved to me is how important it is that restaurant waitstaff are trained to respond to customers with food allergies. Even if a customer is sending confusing messages about their dietary needs, the servers need to respond professionally and seriously.
Luckily, our server was very diligent in dealing with both my (real) food allergies, and my friend’s pretend ones. It made for an interesting brunch – one I hope never repeats itself!
Hannah Lank is a student at the University of Toronto.
Read more about Hannah’s experiences:
College Lessons: When a Roommate Resists Your Allergy Rules
College Year One: Success With a Side of Food Allergy ‘Jokes’
College and Cross-Contact: Navigating Food Allergy On Campus