Single with Food Allergies: Advice on Dating and Relationships

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in Features, Managing Allergies
Published: October 19, 2017

Learning to tell then kiss, food-free dates and other essential secrets to looking for love in a time of allergy. First published in Allergic Living magazine; to subscribe click here

TESSA Bantock was a college sophomore when she fell for a boy with dark hair and blue eyes. She met him at a party in 2012 and they immediately hit it off, talking about their shared love of music long into the night.

The one topic Bantock, who was then 18, stayed away from that evening was her food allergies. “When I meet somebody, it’s not the first thing I bring up. It’s not even the seventh thing I bring up,” she says. “I want someone to get to know me for me.”

Bantock had been diagnosed with severe allergies to peanuts and tree nuts when she was a toddler. Once old enough to date, “I always tried to make my allergy my problem.”

She would check to make sure that date night restaurants could prepare nut-free fare or sometimes eat in advance if she didn’t think a night out would include allergy-safe snacks. As she and the blue-eyed guy started going out, she learned that his sister and mother both had food allergies. She felt comforted; he would get it.

Things were going well between the two lovebirds. Then, after three months of seeing each other, he said he couldn’t be her boyfriend because of her food allergies. “I don’t want to worry all the time,” he told her – words that hurt her deeply.

Tessa Bantock: 'I want someone to get to know me for me.'

Bantock’s experience speaks to the common fear that food allergies or celiac disease will be a dating deal-breaker. “Dating is hard for everyone, and when you have food allergies it adds another layer,” says social worker and food allergy counselor Samara Carroll. “Especially in the beginning of a relationship, when you’re getting to know someone, and there are so many different elements. You don’t want to just be defined by your allergies – but it can feel like that sometimes.”

Finding That Someone

That feeling is one that Randall Koop, 53, has struggled with since being diagnosed with a severe alpha-gal (or red meat) allergy that is acquired through a tick’s bite. After splitting from his wife of 25 years, Koop ventured back into the dating world last year with a new diagnosis and a completely altered lifestyle.

With his lesser-known but serious allergy – one that requires him to avoid everything from red meat to gelatin and dairy – he changed not only his diet, but also personal products such as soap, deodorant and shampoo because they contained animal fat byproducts.

Since women’s makeup and creams often contain these ingredients too, Koop prefers that women he dates avoid such products, in case of a contact reaction. “You have to tell them what’s up before you even go on a date,” says Koop, who lives in Pryor Creek, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, he finds that many women don’t believe his allergy, or haven’t wanted to show up makeup-free for a date.

While Dylan Brennan’s allergies to peanuts and tree nuts allergy are more common, he too has found they can complicate life with the ladies. The 26-year-old notes that at parties or at bars, if he was flirting with a girl and she leaned in for a kiss, he had to turn away.

“It was hard because some will take it the wrong way and think you’re not into them,” says Brennan, an exercise therapist who lives near Toronto, Canada. “It’s not that you’re uninterested, it’s just that you can’t make that move – because you don’t know what she has eaten.”

These days, singles are increasingly turning to online websites to get connected, and those with food allergies are no exception. Koop founded a Facebook group for singles with alpha-gal allergy, and online dating sites such as Allergic Attraction and Singles with Food Allergies have emerged in the past few years.

Dylan Brennan: 'You can't make the move – you don't know what she has eaten.'

“A lot of the people on the website that connect don’t have the same food allergies,” says Matty Thomas, one of the founders of Singles with Food Allergies.

She explains that what brings the site’s users together is a mutual understanding of necessities like label reading and restaurant precautions. Even on big websites such as OKCupid or eHarmony, Carroll notes that online dating can make it easier to put any food allergies out there by including them in the personal profile.

According to the Toronto-based allergy counselor, regardless of whether someone has food allergies or not, if the person is not willing to help keep you safe, then that’s the real deal-breaker. Whether it’s online or in real life, Carroll – who is allergic to peanuts and shellfish – encourages clients to embrace their allergies as part of their identity, rather than viewing them as baggage.

“You want to show that you’re a whole person, and a food allergy is just a part of that.”

Having “The Talk”

Mary Fran Wiley, 32, is no stranger to online dating. When the Illinois resident clicks with someone and they decide to go on a first date, her mind goes into overdrive thinking: “Gosh I hope he’s as nerdy as I am. Did I pick the right outfit to wear? Am I wearing too much makeup?” But as soon as her date orders a beer, her thinking shifts to: “Shoot, you ordered a beer. We’re going to have to talk about my allergies today.”

Mary Fran Wiley: On a first date, she likes to suggest the activity or restaurant.

Wiley is severely allergic to wheat and shellfish, but prefers to avoid having food allergies “become the entire conversation on a first date.” Toward that end, she typically suggests the date activity or a restaurant, such as Chicago’s Little Goat Diner, that she knows is accommodating of her allergies.

Yet Sloane Miller, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in food allergy management, reminds singles of the importance of “the talk,” and that it doesn’t need to be a big sit-down lecture. For instance, when a date asks about her MedicAlert bracelet, she uses that as an opportunity to speak about her allergies.

“There will be a natural opening in a conversation to bring up your needs in a chill way,” says Miller, who is severely allergic to tree nuts and salmon, and also has allergies to several fruits and vegetables. “All you need to do is look for it, and if you don’t see it, then you can create it.”

She stresses that when discussing food allergies, it’s important to do so clearly and confidently – and in her experience, her date typically responds by asking what he can do to keep her safe.

Brennan offers a good example of casually introducing the food allergy subject in a way that gets it out there, without making it seem daunting. He met his current girlfriend through friends and during their first date, he asked her to share a personal “fun fact,” knowing that she would then ask him the same question – and he had his food allergy answer ready.

“I like to bring it up as a conversation piece early on rather than just mentioning it, because then you can educate without overwhelming the person,” he says. Miller advises that these conversations should not be a one-time event. For instance, when a previous boyfriend offered to make her dinner, she noticed that he wasn’t washing the produce.

She stopped him and explained the potential danger of cross-contact, since the local grocery store has open bins of nuts, which people sample from and then touch the fruits and vegetables. Miller saw it as a chance to teach her partner more about allergies and how to keep her safe.

Learning to Tell, Then Kiss

With date nights and sparks flying, kissing may be just around the corner – but could locking lips lead to an allergic reaction? According to New York allergist Dr. Scott Sicherer, studies suggest between 5 and 12 percent of allergic individuals will experience a reaction from an allergen-laden kiss.

Tamar Dougherty: A kissing reaction taught her to say: 'Let me know if you've eaten nuts.'

Last year, Tamar Dougherty, 47, became one of those individuals. The New Yorker had been dating an attorney and he knew about her allergies to tree nuts and peanuts. One night, she went over to his apartment and, after watching a movie, it wasn’t long before the two started kissing. But within minutes Dougherty’s lips began to itch and swell. She asked what he had eaten that day, and he remembered the almond butter on rice cakes.

“A kiss on the cheek is not the issue because if there is any reaction at all, it is most likely going to be redness on the spot kissed,” says Sicherer, chief of allergy and immunology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

“The concern is about mouth-to-mouth kissing because the saliva from the person without allergies might contain residual food allergen, leading to a more serious reaction,” he says. “Just like you would not share a straw or fork, exchange of the saliva is similar to eating some of the avoided food.”

Dougherty was able to calm her lips down by rinsing her mouth with water, but the incident left a lasting impression. “Now if I’m dating someone, I tell him to let me know if he has eaten nuts,” she says. Washing out her mouth may have worked for Dougherty, but others have had more serious symptoms – ones that require epinephrine. So how should an allergic single approach safe smooching?

Sicherer and his colleagues conducted a 2006 study in which they had non-allergic participants eat peanut butter and then tested to see how much of the allergen remained in their saliva after activities such as rinsing, brushing or chewing gum.

Food allergy management counselor Samara Carroll.

The results indicate that the best strategy is to avoid the allergen for several hours and have an allergen-free meal before starting to kiss. If there is a concern about pieces of allergenic food being stuck between teeth, Sicherer recommends brushing before locking lips and adds that “some significant others decide to avoid the allergen altogether, if that is practical.”

Allie Bahn first encountered the issue of kissing back in middle school. She had heard rumors “spin the bottle” might be played at an upcoming party, and she worried about kissing someone who had eaten one of her many allergens (peanuts, nuts, fish, shellfish, legumes, potato, banana, kiwi, mango and olives). Bahn, who today is a fourth grade teacher and food allergy blogger, didn’t want to take any chances, and neither did her friends.

“Before we all sat down in a circle, my friends went around and literally asked all of the boys what they had eaten at the party, and if they had eaten any M&Ms or potato chips they weren’t allowed to kiss me,” says the 32-year-old Boston resident.

Since that night, Bahn has become her own advocate, speaking about her food allergies in a “matter-of-fact way.” Looking back, her friends’ vetting process was a bit embarrassing, but she appreciated it – especially since she was able to get her first kiss that night.

Yes, You’re Worth It

In 2014, Bantock was getting back into the dating world and her roommate was adamant that she had found the perfect man for her. He was the lead singer of a band and tall, dark and handsome with “charisma like I’ve never seen before,” recalls Bantock, who is now 23.

On the day of the date, Bantock grabbed a slice of the gluten-free pizza at her workplace staff meeting before she headed out – not realizing the dough contained almond flour. The musician picked her up, and she immediately felt a flutter – but not the good kind. Her throat felt funny. Bantock figured it was her asthma, so they stopped by her Vancouver apartment to get her puffer. It didn’t help.

Food allergy management counselor Sloane Miller.

Sitting outside of her apartment with the dream guy she had just met, Bantock knew that their first date was headed for a detour. “We need to either call an ambulance or drive to the hospital,” she told him.

Breathing was becoming difficult and she started feeling light-headed, symptoms she’s had when her blood pressure dropped during past reactions. Without a second’s thought, he picked her up, put her in his car and drove to the nearby hospital, where he carried her into the emergency department.

A few weeks later, with Bantock fully recovered, the duo went on a second “first date,” and then another date and another after that. Before long, they were a couple. One day, the new boyfriend turned to Bantock and said, “I’m going to throw out all the peanut butter in my house, and I’m just not going to eat it anymore.”

She tried to tell him that he didn’t need to do that as long as he took the necessary precautions around her. He responded, “No, I would never want to hurt you.”

“I used to feel guilty about people making changes in their lives,” says Bantock. “But when he said that, I realized that the people who really matter will make those changes without batting an eye.”