Step 1: Don’t Panic!!
Easier said than done …I know from personal experience. Panicking is exactly what I did immediately after I hung up the phone with my doctor and received my allergy diagnosis almost ten years ago. I then proceeded to spend several weeks in a tailspin debating whether I would actually be able to continue living without my beloved bagles, pancakes and pizza in my life! I wish I could say I was exaggerating that reaction or being dramatic to make this post more interesting to read but I actually had thoughts that I may not be able to or want to survive without being able to eat my favorite foods for the rest of my life. Now I was diagnosed just about ten years ago when living a gluten free life was just starting to become a thing. Nowadays it seems like we all know someone who has one food allergy or the other or simply chooses to go gluten-free, or dairy-free or soy-free…I could go on and on with the frees. But a decade ago it wasn’t so commonplace and I myself knew nothing about what it meant to have to give up whole food groups, let alone the food group I loved the most.
Hence, the panic. I spent a few days in shock. Then the anger set in. Then my body reacted. After spending almost 29 years inhaling all the carbs I could get my hands on, to go cold-turkey all of a sudden sent my system into some kind of shock. I spent another 3 days on my parents couch in some sort of fog where I barely knew my name and don’t think I even ate or drank anything at all. By about the third day my mom force fed me something she had carefully researched to make sure it was safe and I started to come around. I knew I wasn’t serious about ending it so the only other choice I was left with was to figure out what my new life would be like post-wheat, rice, barley, oats, malt and rye. In hindsight, I probably, definitely, overreacted a tad but I am here to tell you I have lived a full and happy life since then so tryyyyy not to panic too much. You will get through this, I promise! This is why Step 2 is so important….
Step 2: Research the Heck Out of Your Diagnosis!
Listen to you doctor first off but then go home, take your diagnosis into your own hands, and do some research. These days there is tons of information out there to help guide you through your new reality. The more knowledge you have the more in control of your situation you will feel. There are so many great products, recipes, substitutes, tips and tricks out there to help you make the best of your new dietary restrictions. You may even be able to continue eating many of your favorite dishes with just a few minor tweaks to the ingredient list! I mean they make pizza out of cauliflower now! What a great time to be alive!
In all serious, do your own research and make sure you read food labels and menu descriptions carefully. Ask the waiter questions about what is in a dish at restaurants if you have any doubt something might be safe. Heck, if the waiter doesn’t know, ask to speak to the chef. Read every ingreadient in new products you are trying out because sometimes off-limit allergens are toward the middle or end of an ingredient list. Thankully these days both food labels and menus tend to point out if something contains a common allergy trigger such as nuts, soy and wheat, which makes shopping and eating out a lot easier and safer than it used to be.
Do beware of cross-contamination though, especially when eating out or if you live with a S/O or roommate(s) who doesn’t share your same restrictions. Make sure you thoroughly wash/sanitize shared kitchen surfaces, plates, pots, pans, silverware at home and check with restaurant staff to see if they have a separate area in which they prepare the allergy-safe dishes on their menu when dining out. Another little tip that worked well for me especially in the beginning was I would keep a little allergy card on me that listed my allergies which I could hand to waiters/waitresses so they could double check with the chef just to make sure the dish I chose was safe.
Now one of the things that did trip me up in the beginning was how many sneaky food items actually contained wheat that I never would have guessed would have been a danger. For example, soy sauce has wheat in it. Gravy is made with wheat as is a lot of other sauces because it is used as a thickening agent. What I usually do as a rule is order any sauce that may come on a dish on the side just to be sure. Even meatballs, deli meats and some of the faux-meat products like veggie burgers are made with wheat so they are a no-go. Oh and one that made me really sad…licorice is a wheat-containing product! For a former Twizzler-a-holic this one was pretty upsetting to learn! But this is why doing your due-diligence is important you guys! Just take some time to educate yourself so you make smart choices and keep yourself safe.
While all the seemingly endless information and great allergy-friendly products makes life a lot easier for us allergy suffers these days, there is still an emotional element to being diagnosed that is not always addressed by your doctors or even your most well-intentioned family member or friend who don’t share the same limitations. So that brings me to step 3…
Step 3: Be Prepared but Not Consumed…
These days I still have to put more thought into what I am eating than most people I know but I don’t let my allergies consume or define me. For a while after my initial diagnosis I felt like my life revolved around each meal I was going to eat and being afraid of what would happen if I ate the wrong thing. My anxiety increased, my health suffered because I wasn’t putting enough effort into eating a well-balanced diet only strictly avoiding anything and everything I thought might send me back to the ER and I was constantly consumed with the worst-case scenario every time I ate, well, ANYTHING!
Again, back then having a food allergy or five wasn’t nearly as commonplace as it is now so I not only felt despondent and anxious but also very alone. I didn’t know anyone else with the same limitations as I now had and that was an added emotional challenge. I found myself constantly having to explain why I could no longer go out for pizza or eat the stuffing at Thanksgiving. I felt embarrassed a lot, hated having the attention on me when I had to bring up why I had to pass on certain dishes, felt bad when my friends or family had to pick or change restaurants to accommodate my restrictions and generally just felt like a werido because no one else I knew could relate. These days with more people being properly diagnosed and the increased awareness this brings the dialog on the subject is much more open and I myself feel much less embarrassed to bring up my food limitations when the situatoion calls for it.
On top of a plethora of information there are also a lot of great support pages, blogs, networks etc. that you can connect with to find people who share your diagnosis. Knowing you are not alone and it is possible to live a full, happy and healthy life is so important when you are first diagnosed. Share your diagnosis with those closest to you as well, even though they may not be able to fully understand or relate. When I first was diagnosed I was given an epi-pen and a video on how to use it in case of emergency and was urged by my allergist to educate those who I spend a lot of time with on how to use it as well. Having those closest to me in the know and prepared to help if I ever needed it lessened my anxiety and gave me more peace of mind that if the worst should happen I was covered.
Being prepared still to this day helps to lessen my anxiety and the amount of time I waste worrying about what may happen if I was to eat the wrong thing. I know the early signs of an allergic reaction, the tingling and/or swelling in my mouth or lips, the rash and hives that I sometimes get, the flushing and warm sensation that starts in my face and goes down my neck and chest. I know if these things start to happen because I accidently eat something I shouldn’t that I can reach for the Benadryl that I always carry with me and if that doesn’t work I know my epi-pen is always on me as well. I am prepared and diligent but not obsessed.
My allergies are a part of my life but they don’t consume it. They don’t define me because I don’t let them. I’ve learned to adapt to and embrace what my body needs and most importantly I am thankful for being as healthy as I am and what amazing things my body does for me each and every day. We all have our things that challenge us, try us at times, make us feel different from everyone else but staying grateful for all the good and positive things you do have in your life will go along way in dealing with any adversity that may present itself. Now, that cauliflower pizza is calling my name so as always thank you for taking the time to read this post if anyone out there has any questions about food allergies or anything else feel free to reach out!!
** Disclaimer: These are just suggestions based on my own experiences. Please do consult throughly with your doctors/allergiests if you receive a food allergy diagnosis! **