Navigating the Realities of Adult Onset Food Allergies

From peanuts to dairy and gluten to more, food allergies are a very real and life-threatening medical condition for a large percentage of the population. And it’s not just kids. There are many people with adult onset food allergies too.

woman cringes at food on counterAdults Experience Food Allergies Too

While most of the news we hear is about how food allergies impact children, according to the CDC, the cases of onset of adult food allergies continue to rise each year. According to foodallergy.com, 1 in 10 adults have some form of food allergy compared to 1 in 8 children, but there is less awareness about it.

Growing up, my family was aware of food allergies; One of my sisters has a shellfish allergy, but they never personally impacted me. That all changed in my late twenties when I was diagnosed with a honey and ginger allergy and, recently, an egg white allergy. And these are full-blown allergies, not intolerances. They are potentially life-threatening allergies that require constant access to an epi-pen.

epi pens

Food Allergies Change Everything

Managing food allergies when it comes to ginger, honey, and egg whites is not as easy as just not having it. Have you ever wondered what all honey is contained in? Just about everything! Honey is natural sugar, so it is a common sweetener substitute in everything from granola and cereal to sauces and pastries. Honey and ginger are commonly used in Asian-based cuisine, so it isn’t easy to navigate. Egg whites are difficult, too, because who wants to just eat the yolk? But more than that, it is hard because maybe something has just the yolk in it, but that yolk at one point touched the egg whites. Suddenly you have to know much more about food manufacturing than you ever wanted.

And it wasn’t just how I eat that had to change. But how food was prepared. Suddenly, something as normal as making scrambled eggs is now more complicated because not only do I have to find egg substitutes {because I love eggs}, but I must use different pans and ensure that my son’s food does not touch mine. I must change the brands of many things or buy multiples of the same thing, so I have an allergen-friendly brand along with the typical ranch and mayonnaise I buy.

Reading a menu because much more involved and now requires multiple questions about sauces and dressings and spices. One thing that I have learned is while the waitstaff at restaurants are very knowledgeable and good at their job, it is best to ask them to please ask the chef if there is a particular ingredient in something if there is a question at all. With so many items on a menu, it is not always safe to assume that the waitstaff will be able to know every single ingredient in something. It took me a while to realize this is not rude, but the safest option.

woman looking at restaurant menu

Finding oneself suddenly having to change a major part of one’s lifestyle and eating habits is a huge one and is something people need support to get through in a healthy way. Those with adult-onset food allergies must relearn everything about the foods they eat and how they are prepared. They have to find new restaurants and brands that are safe. It is like being dropped in the middle of a grocery store for the first time and told, “good luck with this!”

woman in grocery store aisle

When children are diagnosed with food allergies, it is usually when they are very young, so they have always been unable to eat those things. For adults, however, it feels like something we have always enjoyed is suddenly taken away, such as honey nut cherries, pad Thai, and macaroons.

We must release how to cook and order our food, and there is a very real grieving period involved. And it is not a process that is always met with understanding.

Change of Diet and Change of Attitude

Besides the sudden changes to brands and preparing food, the most significant thing about my adult-onset food allergies I had to change was my attitude about food allergies.

Before I was thrown into the world of food allergy, I thought some people were being extreme by asking for different sauces or making sure the waiter heard them, but now I get it. It is not about attention, it is about safety, and it is hard. It is not just looking at a menu but having to know what is in everything from the dressing, spice mixes, and sauces used on food, and it is exhausting. As the one who has been on the other side of the table when someone was explaining their food allergies, the voice in my head thought, “they are being dramatic,” I can get their skepticism because I had them. Now, however, I need the understanding they desperately needed too.

That understanding is not always there for adults with food allergies. It is hard enough to tell people you are allergic to something as a child; try when you are 40. We are forced to justify our needs and try to explain how we can no longer have something we have always eaten. I have struggled to make some people, even family members, understand that yes, I am really allergic to something now that I was not as a child, and it is not a new diet trend or intolerance, but a life and death matter. Because something you’ve seen me eat before never caused a reaction, not it could kill me.

close up of woman holding pot of food over stove

Being Kind is the Best Response

Being diagnosed with and struggling with food allergies can feel very isolating for adults. When I get online or seek help and support, I find that almost all the resources and websites are dedicated to food allergies among children. And while those are so important, I struggle to find much help for adults who need support or tools to manage this sudden shift in lifestyle. Because adults do not grow out of food allergies like children often can, and unlike children who have parents as advocates, sometimes feel like they only have themselves to depend on. Meaning they need the understanding and support of those around them.

So if you find yourself with a friend or family member or even a stranger in a restaurant, the best piece of advice that I can give you as both a former food allergy skeptic and a current food allergy sufferer, is to be kind and understanding. Even if you do not understand the ins and out, we can all understand the need for a kind smile and an understanding word.

Resources for Adults With Food Allergies

While there are nowhere near as many resources for adults as children, there are some out there that have really helped me navigate this new world.

  • Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends on It by Scott H. Sicherer. This book has provided guidance in many ways as I have started navigating this world.
  • Resources – Food Allergy Safety | FARE is a great resource to find resources, ways to live with food allergies, as well as recipes and tips. This is a great resource for children and adults.
  • 2 Apps that are helpful are AllergyEatsMobile and Fig.AllergyEatsMobile is a great app, especially for when you are traveling that helps you search for restaurants that serve food that is allergy safe for you. Make a profile that is custom to you and it keeps that information handy.Fig is an amazing website that once you customize your profile with the foods you need to avoid, you have the option to scan any barcode to be sure it is safe for you . What I like about this app is that some ingredients lists say eggs, but does not always say egg white and sometimes just sugar substitute is listed and not what it is, so this is very helpful.

Adult food allergies can be overwhelming, but with the right tools and resources, they are manageable.


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