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FAQ for those who don't have food allergies

Hi! My name is Melissa and I have food allergies. The following FAQ is based on questions I have gotten from my own friends and acquaintances, as well as questions I have heard that other food allergics have received. I hope that this FAQ will help you learn more about your friend's food allergies. Remember that if you have a medical question about food allergies, the best person to ask is a board-certified allergist.
It could be that you found this page to help yourself learn more about your friend's problem. If so, please feel free to print it out, and read it at a leisurely pace. Your friend will really appreciate all of your efforts! In fact, reading it together can bring forth interesting and insightful conversations.
For clarity, throughout the FAQ your allergic friend is referred to as "she." If a specific question at the top catches your eye, click on it (if you're online) for a quick-link to the answer.

Questions

Allergies in General
Are food allergies real?
When did my friend get allergies?
How does one get diagnosed with food allergies?
My friend is self-diagnosed. Is that good enough?
How serious are food allergies?
Will I catch food allergies from her?
Maybe I have food allergies, too. I have some of the same symptoms. How do I find out for sure?
When will my friend get over her food allergies?
I don't believe my friend about the reactions she claims to have.

Questions on How to Help
I would like to eat out with my friend who has food allergies. What type of restaurant would you recommend?
How can I make life easier on my friend?
My friend is pursuing alternative treatments that I do not agree with. What can I do?
I would like to cook for my friend. Where should I begin?
How can I help my friend get over her food allergies?

Specific Questions
My friend is allergic to turkey. So, would she be better off eating a free-range turkey that has no allergens in it?
My friend is allergic to apples. Would she be able to have apples that aren't sprayed with pesticides?
My friend is allergic to wheat. She can still eat angel food cake and bagels, right?
Then why does she eat baked goods at home?
Why does my friend keep messing up on her diet and getting sick?
Could this be indicative of an eating disorder? I've noticed weight-loss since the diagnosis.
My friend doesn't eat out and stays in the house a lot. Do you think that she has some sort of phobia of people?
I've known about my friend's allergies for a long time, and she is getting less and less strict about her diet, and it's hurting her. What can I do?
My friend is allergic to all meats, and that is why she became a vegetarian.
It's hard being friends with someone who can't do normal things.
My friend gets worn out too easily, and I think she should move around more and get some exercise. I think she got the food allergies because she doesn't exercise enough.


Allergies in General

Are food allergies real?

Yes, they certainly are. A lot of people look at food allergies as a "trend diet," and, in fact, some people do use the excuse of having food allergies to support the trend-diet they are on. I won't get into specifics, but there are quite a few diet books on the market that claim most people have food allergies, which is not true. Some people claim they are allergic to something just because they don't like it. However, in general, food allergies are quite real.
You may also wonder what food allergies are specifically. It would be difficult to explain the entire situation -- a quick summary would be that your friend has an atypical immune system. Her immune system sees food as an enemy (like a virus) and attacks it. Basically your friend has a war going on inside of her whenever she eats an allergen.

When did my friend get allergies?

Your friend was possibly born with her food allergies, or at least a predisposition to develop them, probably in toddlerhood or early childhood. Symptoms of food allergies often first appear in babyhood when the child is first introduced to solid foods. If ignored, they progressively can get worse. If they are handled immediately, some children's allergies (other than peanuts) can regress. Some moms claim that they first noticed reactions while breast-feeding their babies.
Many people think I developed food allergies as a teen, which is when I was diagnosed. The truth is that I had them my entire life, but they progressively got worse. My reactions in childhood were so mild, or only came in spurts, that my parents thought they were unrelated. My symptoms as a child were things such as bronchitis, ear infections, sinus infections, eczema, vomiting, and diarrhea. Perhaps your friend was also diagnosed later in life. This doesn't mean that your friend just suddenly developed food allergies out of thin air, although that is possible. If you ask, your friend may be able to explain when she first noticed her symptoms.

How does one get diagnosed with food allergies?

Your friend probably was tested through either a skin-prick or RAST method. Both of these tests are performed by allergists.
In a skin-prick test (or a scratch test) the doctor would have scratched or pricked her skin, and put in serums of foods, looking for a welt or rash to form.
In a RAST test, a vial or more of blood is taken from your friend's arm, and they're sent off to a lab for testing.
This is often followed by food challenging (if the allergy is not too severe) to determine that an allergy really is present.
Sometimes, babies/toddlers are diagnosed by their parents. An example would be if a mom feeds her child peanut butter for the first time and the child can no longer breathe. A trip to the emergency room would probably verify that the child is allergic to peanuts. With this type of allergy, the last thing someone is going to want to do is to challenge the allergen! This is the most severe type of reaction, and is called "anaphylaxis."

My friend is self-diagnosed. Is that good enough?

No. As mentioned before, sometimes people will self-diagnose using a trend-diet, or just notice an adverse reaction and say they are allergic. An example would be myself, before I was diagnosed legitimately. After reacting to (specifically) one restaurant's spicy curly fries, I diagnosed myself with an allergy to those specific spicy curly fries! I went around telling people I was specifically allergic to them. I also told my friends that I was allergic to (get this!) the mall.
Allergy testing showed I'm not allergic to those spicy curly fries. I'm allergic to the ingredients within them. Allergy testing also showed I'm not allergic to the mall -- I get sick instead from smelling the odors of freshly cooked wheat products that waft through the mall.
Also, if real allergies exist, it becomes very important to have a good relationship with an allergist. My allergist was the one who convinced my school to give me special attention and unlimited absences due to my reactions.

How serious are food allergies?

Food allergies are very serious. People can die from them. However, food allergies vary from person-to-person. Your friend may not have them as badly as someone else does, or may have them worse than others. If you ask, your friend would probably be happy to tell you how serious or mild her food allergies are. Some people have such mild allergies that they really pose no imposition in their lives.

Will I catch food allergies from her?

It is possible to catch food allergies, mainly through genetics (example, any children of your friend are more likely than others to have this disease passed on to them).
But we aren't communicable! Normal person-to-person contact is not known to pass along food allergies.

Maybe I have food allergies, too. I have some of the same symptoms. How do I find out for sure?

It's only normal for you to begin thinking about food allergies once you know a friend who has them (this is similar with all diseases -- for example, many people go to get their first cancer screenings after a friend is diagnosed with cancer). However, chances are that you DO NOT have food allergies. 95% or more of people do not have them. A lot of the reactions I hear that people assume are allergic reactions are simply normal reactions to food: "I get diarrhea when I drink too much milk." "I get gassy from pinto beans." "Pop makes me burp." "Caffeine makes me have to urinate."
Food allergic reactions aren't this trivial. People with food allergies can have many symptoms, including severe stomach cramping, severe diarrhea, vomiting, eczema, rashes, even immediate death.
Many of the times I hear from people who think they may have a milk allergy, it may actually be lactose intolerance. Some scientists estimate that many people upon adulthood are lactose intolerant, especially based on race. Lactose intolerance is not even remotely related to food allergies; it is an entirely different problem and is not a disease, but instead the lack of an enzyme. If your reaction to milk is very new and very mild (slight diarrhea or a stomach-ache or bloating), you might like to try some lactose-free milk available from your local grocery store.
Still, if you have severe reactions or any adverse reactions to foods, it's a good idea to speak to a doctor.

When will my friend get over her food allergies?

Food allergies are generally/potentially a life-long disease that don't suddenly disappear after avoiding the offending food(s). There are exceptions, especially with younger people who have allergies.

I don't believe my friend about the reactions she claims to have.

This is understandable. Many people with food allergies tend to hide their reactions from their loved ones. When I get really sick with my allergies I literally camp out in the bathroom (with the door locked) with a sleeping bag where no one can see me. Even when I have had public reactions (for example, I have vomited once, and fainted twice in school), no one seems to notice or attribute it to my food allergies (which can actually be very dangerous!). Surprisingly, people are pretty blasse about my reactions. In '99 I fainted at my desk in school and no one noticed . . . or else didn't care.
Remember that your friend's reactions are possibly humiliating. It is never fun to be different, and your friend probably wants to appear as normal as possible. Because of this the reactions may be hidden by her. She may not even tell acquaintainces that she has any health problems. When I had really bad eczema behind my ears, before my diagnosis, I always wore my hair down and hid it. Likewise, many people with food allergies will do all they can to hide their reactions.
You might encourage your friend to become more open about her problems. When we hide things, occasionally people will misunderstand us and come to their own conclusions. One girl in high school made fun of me and thought I had AIDS because I always looked so sickly. It was then that I realized how important it was to tell people I had food allergies before rumors started going around.

Questions on How to Help

I would like to eat out with my friend who has food allergies. What type of restaurant would you recommend?

Going out to eat may be fun for you, but it's not fun for your friend. Your friend will have to read ingredients religiously, speak personally to the chef, double-check ingredients, and may still end up sick.
A salad bar where your friend can choose her own food sounds like a good option, except for the fact that many people have had access to it, and cross-contamination is a big possibility. Fast-food is the same, where anything can be cross-contaminated (and plenty of ingredients are hidden). A lot of people mention expensive restaurants ("slow-food") where you can request specific things personally of the chef, but remember that most people who work at restaurants probably know little to nothing about food allergies and will still make mistakes.
Many, if not most, food allergy deaths occur when the person is eating out (at a friend's home or in a restaurant). That's when your friend never knows what she is eating, no matter how hard she tries. Obviously, a fatal reaction is not something you would like to happen to your friend.
Instead, ask your friend what she would like to do for an outing. A few suggestions include a movie, eating at her house (she probably won't mind you inviting yourself over, go ahead and give it a try!), miniature golf, clothes-shopping, an amusement park, museum or bowling. Try to find an activity that doesn't revolve around food. Also, be careful if your friend can have reactions from inhaling or touching allergens, which can be a problem in all of the above places. Indoor activities you can do at her house might include catalog browsing together, karaoke, or simply talking.

How can I make life easier on my friend?

Everyone wants to feel normal, and everyone wants to feel loved. Help your friend avoid the temptation of eating forbidden foods just to fit in. In eating near your friend, treat her like you would an alcoholic. You would never drink beer in front of a recovering alcoholic. Likewise, it's best not to eat forbidden foods in front of your friend.
Why only one tip? Because just doing that will make a world of difference and show how much you care.

My friend is pursuing alternative treatments that I do not agree with. What can I do?

It's only natural for people with diseases to search for a cure, even when it is generally known that there is none. The same is true for food allergies. There is no cure for food allergies, according to both the FDA and the traditional medical community.
Because I'm not a doctor I'd prefer not to get too far into this topic. However, there is a page on FAST that talks about alternative treatments: http://www.angelfire.com/mi/FAST/medical.html
In the end, what can you do? You can voice your concerns to your friend in a nice way (often a letter does well, if you let someone else proof-read it to make sure it's not unintentionally insulting). But ultimately, it is her decision what she decides to do.
As mentioned above, there is as of yet no approved treatment for food allergies. So if your friend isn't pursuing a "cure," please don't don't alternately try to pressure her into getting treatment. There really isn't much of anything right now, other than clinical trials, in which she can participate.

I would like to cook for my friend. Where should I begin?

This is a nice gesture, but it could spell disaster if you decide to take cooking into your own hands, from ingredients in your own kitchen.
I say, begin in her house, with a food allergy cookbook. Work together to make the meal. If your friend has a good cookbook, you might be surprised at how good the foods taste! If you want to have some fun, print out some recipes from FAST to take to her house and see if she can use the recipes. That way you can both try something new together. The recipes are located at: http://www.angelfire.com/mi/FAST/recipes.html.

How can I help my friend get over her food allergies?

Despite telling people I have food allergies, many people tell me they are praying for me to get over them soon, or ask me, shouldn't I be over my food allergies yet? Although I believe in the power of prayer, I don't believe that food allergies are something people "get over." Telling your friend that she will get over the food allergies (or asking her when she will) will probably not give her hope (still, prayers are always welcome!). It will probably just get on her nerves and let her see that you don't understand food allergies as much as she'd like you to.
As much as you'd like to see your friend be able to participate in the wonderful foods you can eat some day and not be sick any more, the fact is that she is probably going to have her food allergies for a lifetime, unless a treatment or cure is found. It's better to not talk about food around your friend and find other things to do. Often people with food allergies think the entire outside world revolves around food. Prove your friend wrong by finding other things to talk about and do.

Specific Questions

My friend is allergic to turkey. So, would she be better off eating a free-range turkey that has no chemicals in it?
A lot of people misinterpret food allergies as a reaction to chemicals in foods. Food allergies are not a reaction to chemicals, but instead foods themselves. If your friend is allergic to turkey, she's allergic to turkey--and she can't have it in any form.
Still, if your friend is not allergic to turkey, she would probably be better off with a natural turkey (non-basted) because basted turkeys contain allergens such as dairy, spices, and grain products.

My friend is allergic to apples. Would she be able to have apples that aren't sprayed with pesticides?

This question is similar to the question above. If your friend is allergic to apples, she is allergic to apples. She can't have apples in any form -- applesauce, in ingredient listings (example: candies and fruit snacks), or anything. Pesticides are not related to food allergies.

My friend is allergic to wheat. She can still eat angel food cake and bagels, though, right?

I get this question a lot. I think many people who don't have food allergies don't understand what an allergy to wheat is.
Wheat on a label isn't called "wheat." It's called "flour."
So why doesn't your friend just tell you she's allergic to flour? Because, chances are, she isn't allergic to all flours. Flours come in many different forms -- barley, corn, arrowroot, potato, etc. However, on labels in the United States, wheat flour is just called "flour." This is confusing -- so people with food allergies just avoid anything that says "flour" or "modified food starch" to be safe.
Angel food cake and bagels are only "for starters" what your friend cannot have. She also can't have donuts, waffles, ice-cream cones--let's just make this simple--your friend can't eat any baked goods.

Then why does she eat baked goods at home?

Now we get to the second part of the question. If your friend makes her own foods, she can make similar products using different flours (such as corn or barley, etc.). However, foods generally don't taste exactly the same and the flours don't work as well in baking as wheat flour does.

Why does my friend keep messing up on her diet and getting sick?

Your friend is probably not doing this on purpose. One of the biggest comments people with food allergies get is this: "So what if you have food allergies? Just don't eat what you're allergic to!"
Much easier said than done. For one thing, people with severe allergies get sick from just smelling or touching their allergens. People with peanut allergies especially have this problem. It's a nightmare when it's a small kid in grade-school who has these problems (remember how much peanut-butter you ate at school back then?). I personally react to freshly baked wheat, which is impossible to avoid when walking through almost any store.
Furthermore, all people with food allergies (in the USA especially) are presented with what we have termed "vague labeling." Look at any label on any product, near the bottom of an ingredients list (no seriously, it's worth doing just so you'll believe me). Got it? Now read me off the two final ingredients. What was that you said? Natural flavorings? Spices? Eureka! Those are the two most dreaded terms for people with food allergies. Spices can mean garlic extract and other spices, which is bad enough for people with spice allergies. But natural flavorings is especially scary. Aside from that, trace ingredients that get into the food by accident do not need to be listed on the label at all.
To find out if that food is safe to eat, even if none of the other label contains her allergens, your friend will have to call the company to find out. Well, most of the time manufacturers aren't too great about giving out these ingredients. They consider them secret ("proprietary") or else they simply don't know. Sometimes they say they will call back and never do (we've been waiting for one company to return our call for over five years). Some manufacturer representatives will yell at people with food allergies, thinking they are rival companies trying to steal their secret recipes.
If you don't believe me about the above, ask your friend if you can call the manufacturer the next time she wants to check out a product.
Because of this, sometimes your friend may decide to "take a risk" with a product and try it anyway, without calling the manufacturer. Sometimes, the manufacturer representatives give out the wrong information and may tell your friend it's safe to eat when it's not. Or, your friend may simply get bored of not fitting in, and intentionally eat something she knows will make her sick.

Could this be indicative of an eating disorder? I've noticed weight-loss since the diagnosis.

While your friend is trying to adjust to her new diet, a weight-loss is only normal. Imagine suddenly being without any clue what to eat. Almost all pre-made foods are off-limits. This would include high-caloric foods like baked goods.
I personally believe that anyone on my restricted diet would lose weight. Already thin when diagnosed with food allergies, I went on to lose 30 pounds.
Still, I can understand your concern since many of the symptoms are the same (vomiting after eating, diarrhea, and loss of weight). More indicative of an eating disorder would be if your friend did not notice a weight-loss or thought she was fat.
Sometimes people with food allergies will need to talk with a food allergy savvy nutritionist to find new foods to eat. You may want to suggest this to your friend.
Those of us with food allergies who are of a social age may have already been questioned about our eating habits. Not surprisingly, we may have even been accused of having some sort of eating disorder.
Food allergics are generally disturbed when mistaken for someone who has an eating disorder. A lot of the symptoms are in common with food allergies.
"You hardly eat anything." "You're skin and bones." "You're such a picky eater." All of these sayings could fit either an allergic person, or someone who has an eating disorder such as anorexia. Not to mention the symptoms of food allergies that match someone who has bulimia--such as vomiting and diarrhea. Another symptom of an eating disorder is obsessing about food -- all of us allergics can plead guilty to that. And another sign--avoiding social activities that involve foods. Guilty there, too.
Considering that we share a lot of symptoms in common, are food allergies then technically an eating disorder?
The answer, of course, is "no." Those with legitimately diagnosed food allergies who are bone-thin generally know they are bone-thin. Conversely, an individual with an eating disorder will experience body dysmorphic symptoms, where s/he thinks s/he is overweight. The concern food-wise with me is, not will I gain weight, but will I eat enough to maintain my weight? What can I eat? Those of us with food allergies want to eat -- we simply have a hard time finding anything we can My friend doesn't eat out and stays in the house a lot. Do you think that she has some sort of phobia of people?
Here's a typical conversation between two people:
"Want to do something together?"
"Sure, let's go out to eat!"
Our culture is literally obsessed with food and eating out. Any time people want to "get together" with friends, family, or on a date, it's to eat. Your friend may feel self-conscious about this. When younger, I personally stopped going to a church's youth meetings because the first 30-40 minutes of a 60 minute Sunday School class were devoted to eating! People with food allergies often feel alienated because so many outside activities involve food.
Also, the only place where your friend is truly safe is in her home, where she knows what is in the food she eats. This is not a phobia of people or the outside world at all. It may be what she has to do to survive. Imagine what it would mean if any slip-up regarding food could cost you your health, or even your life. It is only normal for your friend to be careful like this.
However, it also is not psychologically healthy for your friend to keep away from people, and it may be a sign of depression if she really is avoiding people.

I've known about my friend's allergies for a long time, and she is getting less and less strict about her diet, and it's hurting her. What can I do?

Are you eating out with your friend? If so, now is a good time to stop and find something else to do together.
Is your friend doing this to fit in? If so, encourage her to find friends who will accept her for who she is, such as yourself.
The best thing you can do for now is to talk to her and let her know you're concerned and care about her and her health.

My friend is allergic to all meats, and that is why she became a vegetarian.

Some vegetarians claim this in magazines, newsletters, etc. (I know, because I've seen it.) The question is, is it true? An allergy to meat is rare (no pun intended) . . . an allergy to all meats (including lesser eaten meats)? Anything you eat too much of has the potential to make you sick -- not necessarily via an allergic reaction . Technically, your friend should be diagnosed by a board-certified allergist with an allergy to meats before she goes around claiming this. The best way to find out if she was is to ask her how she was diagnosed.
Those who do have limited meat allergies can often eat exotic meets like alligator and kangaroo. Your friend can ask her allergist about alternatives to "normal" meats.

It's hard being friends with someone who can't do normal things.

This may be true, but trust me, your friend appreciates you! It's so easy to blame your friend for this type of thing and to think, "well, maybe she doesn't really have this disease." However, your friend needs to be around people who will believe her, accept her for who she is, and accomodate for her needs. The fact that you are reading this FAQ shows that you really care and want to learn how you can help.

My friend gets worn out too easily, and I think she should move around more and get some exercise. I think she got the food allergies because she doesn't exercise enough.

People with food allergies do not have food allergies because they don't exercise. This is just like saying people have any other medical condition because they don't exercise. Of course, we know this not to be true. Your friend was probably born with them, or a predisposition to develop them, in her genes. Your friend has absolutely no control over the fact that she has food allergies, and exercising won't help them go away.
In fact, I and other food allergics do exercise. However, some people with food allergies actually have to be careful about exercising because it can induce reactions or make them worse. One specific allergen this can occur with, and is most likely to occur with (although rare), is celery. This disorder is known as "exercise-induced anaphylaxis."
Although exercising can no doubt make people healthier, and everyone should find an exercise routine (with the advice of a doctor), it will not cure, nor lessen, food allergies.

Thanks for reading this FAQ! If you have more questions, don't hesitate to ask your friend. Asking questions shows how much you care!
This website is for personal support information only. Nothing should be construed as medical advice.