Have you ever been surprised or insulted by a comment about your food allergies (or the allergies of your child)? Being the recipient of insensitive comments is a regular experience of people dealing with food allergies. Such comments can be discouraging and can throw us off, leaving us unable to think off a suitable response.
This article has been assembled by others with food allergies, with sample comments of what can be said in response to some of the most common statements we seem to hear. Being prepared with simple, quick answers may help in educating friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances, while keeping us from feeling hurt or attacked.
One very important thing to point out is that these comments are not meant to be said in a rude manner that attacks the person asking you a question. Your tone-of-voice should be polite and genuine. A mindset that can help can be to take everything as a teaching experience. Remember that the way you react and respond will give the person listening an impression of you. You do not want to be known as "that nutty person allergic to peanuts" or "that crab allergic to seafood." It can be difficult to respond kindly, especially when you feel attacked. The worst instance when this happened to me was in high school. A classmate stood in front of the class and loudly said "You have AIDs, don't you?" I swallowed, took a deep breath, and explained my real problem, quietly and personally to her in a short response, after she had sat back down at her desk. "No. I have food allergies." Her unexpected and uncalled-for outburst could have led to me being very angry, but I was able to turn the situation into a positive by taking time to think of a suitable answer and not lashing out in anger, but instead answering very calmly and to-the-point.
Some of the ideas below on how to answer common questions may look rude. However, they are not rude when said in the correct tone-of-voice and with a smile. Some are even meant to be said in a joking manner. It's up to you to decide what comments are appropriate to your unique situation and the people you are with at the time.
Handling Allergy Topics in General
First, the comments on this page are common. You are not the only person who has heard something similar to these. Even nice people we love can say comments like these. It is difficult to broach the topic of a person's disability, and the awkwardness can contribute to strange things being said.
Do not reply in anger or disgust to comments you receive, even if they are said in what you perceived to be a rude manner. Each situation should be taken as a potential teaching experience, unless the person speaking has a track record as an insensitive person who isn't interested in learning something new.
Patience is important to have, because the same person may ask the same question (or make the same comment) repeatedly. You'll probably feel tempted to say, "haven't I told you this before?", but resist that if possible. Food allergies are very confusing, and you can't expect people to remember everything about them. Try to be patient and hopefully after a while at least the important things will sink in.
Some people believe the best way to take the serious focus off a situation is to make a joke out of it. However, other people feel highly uncomfortable when someone jokes about his/her illness. I know that I personally fall into the trap of joking about my illness too much with people, and have seen them squirm uncomfortably. If you must make a joke of your illness, it should not be a regular thing. There are times to be serious and times to be funny. If you laugh about your disease it can be confusing for others to know how to speak to you about it. It can also give them the mistaken impression that it's no big deal, or even that it's okay for them to make fun of your disease and, consequently, you.
This type of comment always seems to come at a bad time! You may be feeling perfectly well and someone walks up to you and says you're looking sick, or you may be feeling perfectly awful and someone will walk up and say you look well! It somewhat seems to invalidate your feelings. Although this comment sounds rude, get used to it! This is one of the most common comments you will receive as someone living with a hidden disability. It is as common as someone walking by you and saying, "Hi, how are you?" and not expecting you to say anything but "fine." Although you may discover a way to combat this ever-present commentary on your appearance, you may want to experiment with "pat" answers or simply not answer at all (since they generally don't come in the form of a question). Whatever you come up with--a joke, a funny saying, or just "thanks," be sure to make sure you do not offer a curt response. Hopefully whoever makes the comment is genuinely interested in how you are feeling.
"Well, you don't LOOK sick."/"Well, you look good, anyway."/"You look like you're feeling better today!" (When you feel sick.)
"I wish you'd tell my wife/husband!"
"I'm glad I look okay on the outside, but I actually don't feel well today. But thank you for the compliment! "
"You look bad." (Said when you're well.)
"I'm feeling okay today! Hey, do I have something in my teeth?"
This is one of the most dreaded categories. You may find yourself being compared to people with other diseases or the person speaking to you. Primarily, just remember that comparisons are immature (think back to grade-school and "my dad is stronger than your dad"). It's actually inappropriate to draw such concrete comparisons over "what ifs," offering an authoritative opinion on a subjective topic. You don't need to stoop to their level by continuing with the comparisons. You may like to come up with an answer that draws away from comparing at all.
"At least you're not as bad off as _____ [person's name]."
"How is _____ [person's name] doing?" (Ask only if out of genuine concern.)
"At least you don't have [a different disease]."
"I'm also glad that I don't have additional diseases...it's challenging enough dealing with the one(s) I have!" (Here you can change the meaning a bit; not that you don't have that disease instead, but a genuine thankfulness that you have the one(s) you have to deal with.)
"It's not like you really have anything wrong with you."
"To tell you the truth, food allergies are actually very difficult to deal with and are a disease. Some things that make it difficult are..." (Include a list only if the person you are speaking to seems interested.)
"I would just DIE if I couldn't eat [name of food]."
"I might die if I did." (You can also talk about how you do miss that food, if you were able to eat it before.)
"I could go on your diet, no problem."
"I thought that when I was first diagnosed, but I quickly realized how difficult it is to avoid my allergens." (Here, with an interested person, you can talk about labeling, not eating out, etc.)
Intentionally Insensitive Comments
The simplest solution to avoiding intentionally insensitive comments is to avoid intentionally insensitive people. If your friends repeatedly mock you and your condition, they are not genuine friends. However, it could be that you are subject to this type of comment from unavoidable co-workers or family.
"I caught you! You're not really allergic to ____, because you're eating it right now."
"This is actually an allergen-free version of that food, made out of ____."
"So, what did the peanut say to the anaphylactic?" (And other general teasing or making fun.)
"Although I enjoy your jokes, I personally feel hurt. I feel that it was insensitive to me." (Note the words "I feel." This helps to not put blame on the person who said the joke. You may also want to check whether or not you have been making fun of your own allergies. If so, the person might have assumed it was okay for him/her to do so as well.)
Medical questions can be very difficult to answer, because most people don't want to sit around for the whole scientific explanation! Sometimes people ask these as rhetorical questions and do not really want to know the answers. Before replying, you might want to ask the person, "Do you want the short version or the long version?" A question like this can immediately show him/her that (1) It's actually going to take a long, involved expanation to answer the question asked, and (2) If s/he doesn't really want to hear the answer, you don't want to take the time to go into details. In addition, with questions related to your reactions, keep in mind that many people are excited to hear juicy details about anaphylaxis. They may be disappointed if you do not mention this type of reaction.
"What happens if you eat things you're allergic to?"
"My system tries to fight it off in any way it can..." (You can talk about it more if you feel that person is interested. Sometimes people are only interested in hearing about near-death experiences. It's your call...but you might choose to only open up to close friends or those you feel are genuinely interested.)
"Haven't you outgrown that yet?"
"Unfortunately, it seems children only outgrow their allergies, and not all of them do. I just concentrate on today!"
"You react to your allergen without eating it? I don't believe you."
"Do you know ____, who is allergic to cats [pollen/ragweed/dogs]? Remember that bad asthma reaction he had last week? He didn't eat a cat, and he tries to avoid being around them. Like him, I can react to my allergens present in my environment without ingesting them. My allergens just happen to be food."
"Isn't there a pill you can take?"
"I wish that there were. But there is no treatment for food allergies, other than to totally avoid that food."
"Why don't you just take allergy shots to get rid of it?"
"While allergy shots can work well for environmental allergies in some people, shots are not successful for treating food allergies."
"Why would you even go to an allergist if there is nothing they can do for you?"
In response, list what your allergst does for you, such as your blood or skin tests, prescriptions, notes for school or work, etc.
Like Eve tempting Adam, you may find friends who dangle the proverbial forbidden fruit in front of your face. This type of taunting can lead to giving in...but don't let it! You can use a bad situation to educate people around you, show them your condition is serious, and (most importantly!) avoid experiencing a reaction. One experiment you might try with a friend trying to offer you homemade food s/he has deemed "safe" is to ask him/her to list alternate names for "milk" (or...?) that might appear on an ingredient list, or if the person is present in your home, you might point out an ingredient label and why it is confusing.
"Oh come on, one bite won't hurt!"
"The scary part about food allergies is, I never know which bite will send me to the hosptial. Do you want to be the one who gives me the bite that does?"
"I will possibly die if I eat that, so I prefer to stay away from it."
"If I do eat that food, I will be sick for days, so it is a choice I need to make."
"It is not by choice that I stay away from that food. I really would enjoy it, but it makes me sick. I would be the first one in line for that food if it didn't!"
"Don't worry...you can eat this, I made it and didn't put any ______ in it."
"I really appreciate your thoughtfulness, but my allergens have a way of hiding
in things you would never imagine or not being clearly labeled on ingredient lists. I would feel safer eating my own food."
"Unfortunately, I have gotten sick from eating 'safe' food that other people have made for me, so I no longer take chances. I really am grateful that you tried, though...it was very, very nice of you!"
Unintentionally Insensitive Comments
One thing we need to realize is that most people do not intend to say insensitive things. In fact, at times, misunderstandings can occur if we take everything we hear as an insensitive comment. Most people are not trying to be rude...and it can be intimidating for people to broach the subject of a disability, so what they say may only sound insensitive since it is difficult to even know how to speak about it. Remember how little you knew about food allergies before you were diagnosed. You might have also been curious to learn more about them, or another health condition. Ask yourself before responding whether or not a person is intending to be insensitive. For example, if someone says s/he has allergies, too, that person is attempting, even if half-heartedly, to show that s/he has empathy for you...not to be insensitive and rude, though it may come across as that person saying, "What's the big deal?"
"I have food allergies, too." (Often said by someone who does not.)
"You do? Who's your allergist? Maybe we go to the same one!"
"When were you diagnosed?"
"Did you have the RAST or skin-prick?"
"So what DO you eat?"
"Foods that are made from scratch, using alternative ingredients."
Unsolicited Medical Advice
Medical programs on television seem to have encouraged everyone to believe s/he is an armchair medic. Unfortunately, most information available to the public today (especially via the Internet) is faulty. It can be discouraging when people you know are constantly offering you articles and books to read and videos to watch...you probably already feel overwhelmed with information! The important thing to remember here is that anyone offering you information (even if it is inaccurate) is doing so out of interest in your health and well-being. People do not realize that what they offer may be something you already read or something inaccurate. And remember, the same person who offers you an inaccurate article today may be the same person who offers you a new, accurate, and helpful article tomorrow.
"But if you don't drink milk, your bones will break!" (Or a similar response on how the lack of a certain food/vitamin/mineral will have dire medical consequences down the road.)
"While [name of condition] is a concern, that product produces a very serious reaction in me, so I try to get [name of vitamin/mineral] through other means such as ________."
"Here is an article that will help you."
"Thanks!" (I normally just kindly accept the article and then read it, even if I know it's probably not true. In my opinion, someone who gives me a really inaccurate article today may give me a useful one tomorrow. And at least s/he was thinking of me!)
This article was a vast conspiracy, with many thanks to: AnnaMarie, Becci, Becky S., KSB, Melissa P., Mylène; edited and with most text by Melissa Taylor.
http://www.angelfire.com/mi/FAST, July 2004.