Do Friends Really ‘Get’ Your Food Allergies?

in College Corner, Managing Allergies, Your Stories
Hannah and friend Elena in Athens.

My role as food allergy advocate has been greatly inspired by the late Sabrina Shannon, a food allergy advocate herself, who suffered a tragic and fatal allergic reaction at the tender age of 13 in 2003. One of Sabrina’s most powerful works of advocacy was a CBC radio documentary called “A Nutty Tale,” during which she interviewed some of her friends about her food allergies.

Our friends are often some of our biggest supporters when it comes to dealing with food allergies. But as Sabrina’s documentary showed, there’s also a lot they may not know about the nuances of managing allergies.

Inspired by Sabrina, I began to wonder what my own non-allergic friends thought about food allergies. I decided to ask my best friend, Elena, how she felt about my allergies to nuts and peanuts. We spend a lot of time together and have even traveled internationally, so she has experienced what life is like with food allergies, even if only peripherally. She knows my rule about not sharing drinks (cross-contamination!), and even speaks up for me when others ask to have a sip of whatever I’m having.

Rather comically, on our 2019 trip to Greece she acted as a physical barrier between me and the stores and stalls selling roasted nuts. It was amusing, yet also comforting, to have my friend be the human shield between me and my food enemy.

Still, I decided to ask if she had any questions about my health condition. Like most people in their early twenties, Elena has known about food allergies since she was a child. “The first person I knew with severe food allergies was one of my brother’s friends,” she told me. Since he had allergies to several common foods – dairy, eggs and nuts – “I felt concerned for him, especially because he was younger than me.

“I was always afraid that he might eat something bad by accident, and end up having a severe reaction.” Our food allergies pose a constant threat and, as Elena showed, that can be scary even to non-allergic people.

Nutella Question Arises

I was curious: had my food allergies ever been a frustration for her? Elena said they weren’t, adding “in fact I always feel slightly concerned when we go out somewhere new to eat.” This is a very mature and caring response, but not every young person is that aware, at least not without considerable education. As many of us know well, food allergy bullying is a serious issue, and the representation of food allergies in television and movies often makes light of food allergies and misinforms the public about their severity.

So I asked Elena, before our friendship, had she ever teased or even bullied someone for having food allergies? My friend replied that since food allergies are something people can’t help having, “It would be horrible to be bullied for something like that.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever said anything hurtful or mocking to anyone with allergies,” she said, then paused. “Except for that one time I asked you over text if you would ever eat a spoonful of Nutella in a hospital, just to see what it’s like? Does that count?”

The Nutella question is something I’ve gotten before from non-allergic people (which tells me it must be really delicious if you’re not allergic to it). I find it an interesting question, and I don’t mind when people ask because I know it’s not malicious, but rather curious. It reminds me of when Sabrina Shannon’s friend asked her in the documentary why she couldn’t simply take a Lactaid pill for her milk allergy. As Sabrina replied: “Life with food allergies is not like that.”

In my view, the Nutella and Lactaid pill questions highlight something fundamental about food allergies: for non-allergic people, they can be a really weird concept. How can this food that I absolutely love to eat have the complete opposite effect on you and lead to a serious and possibly fatal allergic reaction?

For most people, this is incredibly foreign. I think it is important to realize this, as it can allow us to have better conversations about food allergies with those who don’t live with them. As for my answer to the Nutella question, it is a hard ‘no’; having an allergic reaction is a scary experience, even in the relative safety of a hospital.

Check In With Friends

It can be helpful to check in with your friends and even with some family members about any questions they might have about your food allergies or what your food allergies mean to them. It is understandable that food allergies can be a frustration not only for us, but for those around us, and that they can also be worrying for us and for the people who care about us.

Being able to have honest and informed conversations about how to manage food allergies and support one another is important. If you haven’t checked in with your food allergy support network lately, think about making some time to do it soon.

Read more articles by Hannah Lank:
You Can Be a ‘Foodie’ with Allergies, But Also Be a Food Detective
Pizza Mishap: Why You Can’t Let Your Guard Down with Allergies
When Dua Lipa Stood Up for Food Allergies, We All Won
Working as an NYC Barista Opened My Eyes to Food Allergy Risks