Don't Say That!
If you are the friend or loved one of someone with food allergies, no doubt you have said "something stupid." You're not alone. Smart people say stupid things; that is because we often speak without thinking through how what we say will come across to the person who is suffering.
The following are things that have all been said to me by smart people--yet they are stupid comments. After mentioning the statement, I go on to explain why this is a bad comment and what might be a better way to address the person who has the allergies. I feel that many times we say "stupid things" simply because we want to know more about something, yet don't quite know how to word our questions. Instead, we make abrupt comments that, though we hoped would spark conversation, instead immediately halt it. The best way to find out about your friend's food allergies, then, is to ask kind, open questions that will lead to open dialog.
Please don't be insulted if you have said one of the following, or have been tempted to. These are extremely common comments that many other smart, thoughtful people like you have said.
"Well, you don't LOOK sick."/"Well, you look good, anyway."
Why do people say this? I find myself hearing this often after I mention that I have a serious health problem. It could be that people say this because it is true. However, I doubt it, as I have had it said to me when my eyes are clouded up, have black circles around them, and I feel like I'm dragging along a load of bricks.
Although meant to encourage, these words ring hollow. They leave the person who has been addressed feeling invalidated. "If I look so good, why do I feel so awful?" The person who is told this is not encouraged. He or she is left feeling that no one believes in the illness because it is felt inside but not seen on the outside.
A far better comment for people who are suffering from a hidden disability is, "How have you been doing today?" If the person mutters a "fine," follow it up by, "no, how do you really feel?" A genuine interest in how the person really feels shows that you truly care. An alternate question is, "Is there anything I can do to help you out today?"
"You look sick."
At the exact opposite end of the spectrum is the comment that the person does, indeed, look sick. While this comment is slightly more appropriate than the one above (honest--I would rather have my feelings of illness validated rather than invalidated!) it could come at the wrong time. What if your friend is feeling completely well and you say, "You look sick today." Oops. That person will wonder: did I forget to brush my hair? is my makeup on wrong? do I have something in my teeth?
Again, asking the person how s/he really feels will help you gauge whether or not your friend is really sick. If s/he says, "Yes, I am sick today," it's best not to reply with a comment such as, "Yeah, I thought you didn't look very good today."
What happens if you eat something that you're allergic to? (Question contributed by Becky S.)
The worst thing is when your friend has a gastrointestinal reaction to food allergies and you ask this question in a public setting. It has happened to me before! I blush and mutter, "I have intestinal flu symptoms." That's the most delicate way I've found to put it!
If you truly want to know--not out of morbid curiosity but rather out of concern for your friend, such as wanting to find out how you can respond in case of a medical emergency--do ask. But, wait until you are with that friend alone and in a comfortable setting. You may also preface the question by saying, "If this question comes across as too nosey, you don't need to answer."
If your friend replies with a list of symptoms, don't respond with something such as, "Oh, that's not so bad." Instead, actively listen and hold your comments.
"At least you're not as bad off as [person's name]."/"At least you don't have [a different disease]."
Comments offering an uninvited comparision between your friend and someone else are very inappropriate. First, doing so causes your friend to feel guilty. "Is what I am feeling wrong?" Secondly, since you have not walked in either person's shoes, you really are offering a subjective opinion in an authoritative manner. Quite honestly, you don't know which person is suffering more or is worse off, and you therefore shouldn't blanketly say one is worse than the other.
One of the ways you can learn about your friend's disease is by asking questions. "What does it feel like to have an allergic reaction?" "What is the worst thing that could happen to you during a reaction?" "Do you feel sick even when you haven't eaten any of your allergens?"
"I would just DIE if I couldn't eat [name of food]."
If you had food allergies, you'd also potentially die if you did.
This comment never comes across as a nice one. It's basically like saying, "Neener, neener, I can eat ____ and you can't." Trust me, your friend probably misses the food if diagnosed later in life, and already thinks similarly to you.
Something far better to do is to ask your friend, "What food do you miss most?" Then, try to come up with ideas, absent of his/her allergens, to recreate a similar food. Better yet, don't point out the differences between the way you and your friend have to eat. Instead, focus on activities and conversations that do not involve food.
"But if you don't drink milk, your bones will break!" (Or a similar comment about how lack of a certain food group will cause dire medical consequences.)
Although usually voiced out of concern for the person who has food allergies, this type of comment only serves to heighten your friend's fears about the future and the effects this disease will have on his/her health and wellbeing. Hopefully your friend has already worked toward finding alternatives to make up for the lack of a certain food that is high in a vitamin. Maybe s/he has even found a multi-vitamin that is free of allergens. However, this isn't always feasible.
You can also research foods for your friend and try to steer that person toward foods that are high in certain vitamins and minerals. However, tread here with caution, as trying to step on that person's diet plan can be seen as though you do not trust your friend with what s/he is choosing to eat. In addition, your friend may already have a higher understanding of what foods are safe and contain needed vitamins. It might be best to first ask if you can help in any way or if help is even wanted in this area.
"So, you're allergic to peanuts/nuts." (Comment submitted by Mylène.)
Many people assume that all people with food allergies are allergic to nuts; either that they are only allergic to nuts, or that they are allergic to other foods and also nuts. Nut allergies get the most press and are also responsible for most food allergy deaths. However milk is actually the most common food allergen.
Instead of putting words into your friend's mouth, you can ask what foods s/he is allergic to...if genuinely interested. Remember to only ask questions you are genuinely interested in finding out the answers to. A lot of us find ourselves answering questions from people who aren't really interested but only want to hear horror stories about near-to-death experiences. Allergies are always serious to the people who have them and it is not "disappointing" if your friend's allergies don't fit what you have learned about on the evening news. It's important to realize that this condition differs greatly, and no two people have the exact same allergies and reactions.
"Haven't you outgrown that yet?" (Comment submitted by AnnaMarie.)
This is one of the most difficult questions I have been asked. Food allergies are not something that someone gets over or outgrows; some small children outgrow allergies, but allergies present in adulthood are seen as permanent. Any comments alluding to this are best avoided completely, because they only negatively reinforce to your friend the permanency of the condition and the lack of a cure.
However, please know that those of us with food allergies do understand that the media often present the condition as a "children's disease" which children "outgrow." When seen in this way, no adult should, therefore, have food allergies. Such is not the case, however. Adults can and do have food allergies. It is quite unfortunate that the media do not report things 100% correctly, but they are often on the lookout for the best angle to a story, and because of that it seems they often do focus on children as being the victims of the condition. However, for someone to have it at any age is possible.
"Here is an article that will help you."
I am often offered articles on cures, treatments, and basic allergy information. As far as basic allergy information goes, I already know it. Many articles are written by writers who use the exact same press releases; meaning that they contain all of the same information, but that it's rewritten by different people. I've read so many articles that are almost the exact same in content/"meat" that I have lost count.
As far as treatment and cure articles go, these are almost always inaccurate and based on hokey information. It is difficult for me to know how to respond when I am given these types of articles, because I'm worried that anyone who gives them to me has been exposed to very bad information, yet since it was "in print" that person usually won't believe me if I say so, but will instead believe the article.
Before offering your friend a vast amount of print information, find out first if s/he wants it and is on the lookout for it. In addition, ask your friend what sources you should turn to for accurate information (with food allergies, realize that most information out there is inaccurate)--that way you will be on the same page.
"You react to your allergen without eating it? I don't believe you."
Those who have very severe allergies can and do react to their food allergens without eating them. Although this may sound surprising and unbelievable at first, it's much easier to understand when you think about allergies in general.
Do you know someone who is allergic to cat dander? That person likely will not even touch a cat for fear of a reaction. That person doesn't need to eat the cat in order to react. Do you know someone allergic to ragweed? That person reacts without eating ragweed.
Eating a food is not the only way someone can get food into his/her system. Touch and smell/inhaling are also ways that an allergen may get into the system. The fact that food is so prevalent in today's society--especially at social gatherings--can, in fact, force people with severe food allergies to stay home or try to have some control over their environments. Accidental exposure can be very scary, and is incredibly difficult to avoid.
When I mention this to people (I react to wheat without eating it), I find myself having to defend how serious food allergies can be, no I'm not making it up, yes I know for sure, yes I have been tested, yes I react even if I don't know it's there, etc. Often I am left completely flustered because people either (1) don't believe it or (2) are so fascinated by it that they want to learn more. I would rather people just believe it and leave it at that--after all, people who are allergic to cats aren't questioned on how they react to cats.
If your friend mentions having this type of allergy, the best way to direct the conversation is toward ways you can help make your friend's environment allergen-free. For example, don't ask your friend to go eat with you in a restaurant. Think of activities that don't involve food.
So what DO you eat? (Question contributed by Becky S.)
Although you may be curious about what your friend eats, this question is difficult to answer. When I have been asked this, I feel overwhelmed because I'm not sure where to start in explaining labeling, how I try to recreate "normal" foods, etc. I have to explain that though I can eat cake and cookies, they have to be made out of rice. I have to mention brand names of foods that most people have never heard of. If asked this, your friend will likely feel overwhelmed and unsure what to say. In addition, whenever I answer this I find the person who asked it tires quickly of my explanation.
Although this question may be of interest to you, make sure you know the person well, word it in a kind and compassionate way, and are ready to sit down. In short, don't ask the question unless you are ready to actively listen to a long answer. If you can, ask it while you're in your friend's kitchen. It will be easier for him/her to show you how s/he eats.
"I have allergies, too."
Many people who find someone has food allergies immediately try to set up a rapport with that person by expressing that they (or a close friend or relative), too, have food allergies (or another type of allergy) and thus have some understanding of what that person is going through.
Oftentimes, upon further questioning, the person with food allergies learns that the person has lactose intolerance or a similar condition that is in no way related to allergies.
Those who have legitimate, serious allergies and are told this may immediately feel as if the person speaking to them is saying, "I've been through it, too, but look at me. I'm okay. It's not a big deal." In addition, it immediately sets up the speaker as someone who isn't going to be accepting of the condition and will think the person with food allergies is making vast exaggerations about the condition. The type of person it is most difficult for me to explain my food allergies to is one who has mislabeled his/her own condition (such as lactose intolerance or a fad diet) as "food allergies."
What should you do instead? First, don't say that you have food allergies unless you're 100% sure you have legitimate food allergies and have been diagnosed by an allergist through a test (skin test or blood test). Otherwise, realize that your condition is most likely something different, and don't draw comparisons between the two.
"I caught you! You're not really allergic to ____, because you're eating it right now." (Comment submitted by Mylène.)
Many times those with food allergies have been shocked to find people acting thrilled to have "caught" them eating a forbidden food. For example, someone eating a sandwich might be told by a friend who does not have food allergies: "I knew you weren't allergic to peanuts! You're eating a peanut butter sandwich!"
However, some people with food allergies use "substitutions" to make foods that are similar to what you eat. They may also buy prepackaged foods that are made of alternate ingredients. Did you know, for example, that "peanut butter" can be made from walnuts? That cookies can be made from rice flour? A white, milk-like liquid can be made from soy or rice.
These foods generally don't taste quite the same or quite as good as what you are used to...but they do look the same. Although it might be fun to think you're catching your friend cheating at his/her diet, it's never fun to be yelled at for eating a safe food!
Instead, if interested, ask your friend about the food. For example, you could ask what the food is made out of, if it tastes good, and where your friend got it. If not interested, you don't really need to ask or draw attention to it...it's best to assume your friend is eating within his/her diet and to not draw unneeded attention to that person when eating. We already often feel very different due to our diets.
"I could go on your diet, no problem."
Although this might be offered as a means of encouragement, it is not fair to your friend. First, food allergens are vastly more difficult to avoid than you can possibly imagine without having lived through the disease. But it also makes your friend question why s/he has wishes to eat "normal" food and negates all of his/her complaints about the diet.
As has been mentioned repeatedly above, asking questions is far more beneficial than making blanket comments. A question that would instead work here when you have this type of feeling is, "Can you show me why labels are hard to read?" If you are interested in how hard it is to be on an allergen-free diet, ask your friend. "Can you explain labeling to me?" And try some of your friend's food--ask him/her to cook you an allergen-free meal. And make sure to specify you don't want all of the good allergen-free foods (most of us tend to give others the good stuff and save the less-than-yummy items for when there's no company!). Try some of the more odd-ball foods, too. Without saying anything to your friend such as "Oh, I'm glad I don't have to eat this every day!", this will give you new understanding for why it may be difficult to be on any medical diet.
"So, what did the peanut say to the anaphylactic?" (And other general teasing or making fun.) (Idea submitted by Becci.)
Many people with food allergies have been the subjects of teasing. People often joke when they don't know what to say, or they may feel that it will break the tension. It might be a food allergic person's food that is made fun of, or the person him/herself. Either way, this type of poking fun is not acceptable because it will make your friend feel different...and no one likes to be the butt of jokes.
And if, conversely, your friend with the allergies is poking fun at him/herself, it may simply be because s/he knows that doing so will make you feel more at ease. Do not take it as permission for you to join in. One of the things about jokes is that it's often okay for a person with an insider's view to make fun, but not okay for someone else. For example, you may have seen an overweight comic telling jokes about being overweight. For some reason, it is more acceptable for that person to say these types of jokes than it would be for someone who is skinny. While joking that puts people down is really immature and not funny at all, this may be why your friend would feel okay saying jokes about him/herself but would not be comfortable with you doing the same. Sometimes people tell jokes about themselves because they feel it will keep you from telling the same joke...it's somewhat a defense mechanism ("If I make fun of myself first, then they won't get the chance").
Laughing and joking around with your friend is great! Being able to laugh helps us feel more positive about ourselves and the world around us. But when you tell jokes, make sure the subject is not your friend or food allergies.
by Melissa Taylor, 2004; From www.angelfire.com/mi/FAST