I didn’t think twice about having a food allergy when I dated boys in high school. Neither my parents nor my allergist warned me about how dating could be more difficult for me than for others.
I mean, the protagonist Allie in The Notebook didn’t have to ask: “Did you eat any tree nuts today?” before kissing. No one called ahead to the restaurant to ask if they could accommodate a food allergy. However, these characters didn’t have anaphylactic food allergies to tree nuts like I do.
For me, dating in my teen years was always in a pretty controlled setting, and I always kept it pretty casual. By some stroke of luck, I was never exposed to tree nuts when kissing a boy or when eating out at a restaurant.
However, heading off to college completely shifted this paradigm. Due to the nature of dining at Harvard University, I have not had the option to cook my own safe food in my dorm, and have eaten out much more frequently than I used to while living at home. In addition to regularly scheduled meals, there is often food that accompanies most college events, especially ones where alcohol is present.
Before I left for college, I had only experienced anaphylaxis twice. Unfortunately, in the past two years alone, I have had four rounds of anaphylaxis. The potential scenarios for exposure to my allergen have increased while away from home. Dating in college while having food allergies is one of these scenarios.
There are two realms of danger with dating with food allergies that I want to highlight: issues that may arise while at a party, and issues that may arise while eating out at an event or a restaurant.
Frat Parties and Drinking
I know we’re supposed to just be nerds at Harvard, but even we know how to throw a party and have a bit of fun. Due to COVID-19, we will be conducting virtual classes and only 40 percent of the student body will be on campus. However, in normal times, weekends at college largely consist of blaring music, semi-lit rooms, and a considerable amount of alcohol.
Often there are punches or “jungle juices” concocted by the host, and the party-goers have no idea what ingredients it contains. Allergy or otherwise, it is very unwise to drink these at a party.
Plus, many alcohols can actually have cross-contamination with allergens and sometimes even contain one of the Top 8 allergens! There are lots of myths that surround alcohol and allergies, so I recommend reviewing this phenomenal article by Nicole Smith for reliable information.
There exists a layer of caution that I have to consider when attending parties with my friends. Even when I want to have fun with my friends, it is clear that my personal safety is much more important than any beverage that is offered. Over time, your peers will respect your decision about choosing to drink alcohol, or not, at a party.
What’s In a Kiss
Suddenly, it is midnight and there are people all around you pairing off – kissing and leaving the frat party together. The reality of “hook-up culture” is potentially life-threatening behavior for those with food allergies. According to the allergist Dr. Scott Sicherer, cited by Gina Clowes on Allergicliving.com, studies show that between 5 and 12 percent of food-allergic patients will experience a reaction from kissing. This is because proteins in saliva last several hours after consuming the allergen.
In the heat of the moment, it might not be your first thought to ask the person you are kissing what they have had to eat or drink in the past six to eight hours. Especially if you are heavily intoxicated, it is almost guaranteed that you won’t be thinking about your allergies or the risks of kissing this person.
During my freshman year, one of my friends came back from a party and told me that she had kissed 10 separate people. The next morning, she didn’t remember the night before. Even without allergies, I would say this is irresponsible behavior, and definitely wouldn’t encourage it. But the hard reality to many concerned parents and allergic students is that this behavior is not uncommon in college. My advice to all incoming freshmen: be wary of hook-up or party culture, and think through the risks involved before participating.
The Big First Date
“Saturday night at 8?”
Along with this text, he sent me the link to the restaurant menu that he had chosen for our first date. My stomach did three flips, but not because I was excited or nervous for the date. Every single dish on the menu had some type of tree nut.
I didn’t feel comfortable eating there, and I knew that he wouldn’t likely be ordering his dish without nuts. So, I steeled myself, texting back and asking him if we could switch the restaurant and explaining why. I was nervous that he would think I was weird, annoying, or both for asking to switch the location. He didn’t think either of these things, and we had a great first date at a different restaurant.
Having allergies should not make you feel embarrassed, and your safety should always be the primary concern. When you’re in college, you are your only advocate. If you can, suggest a restaurant that you know is safe for you. Don’t be afraid to bring it up on your date, either (I’ve found that a good time is after talking to the waiter about cross-contamination in the kitchen).
I heard someone once call this dating communication “the talk”, but I don’t think that’s the right way to approach it. This is part of who you are, something that makes you even more interesting. Dates who are worth your time and energy are going to be willing to switch the restaurant, change their food order when around you, and also eventually be your advocate around others too.
The Long-Term Relationship
I’m 20. Admittedly, I have only been in a few of these. But I have learned one important lesson: if someone is not willing to help protect you, he or she is not worth it.
Alexa Jordan is a rising junior at Harvard University. She can be found at @alexa.jordan on Instagram.