Food allergies and sensitivities are everywhere. This is not the end of the world. As someone who suffers from sever lactose intolerance, I can attest that it is not a fun affliction. It makes eating out stressful and sometimes/most times very, very limiting. You never realize how much dairy is in the world until you can’t have any. From my friends who have other allergies/intolerances, this is a fairly universal feeling. You end up scouring food labels (4 and 5 times, just to be sure) looking for anything that could trigger a reaction. Sometimes it feels like a job just finding something to eat.
What makes it very difficult to live with a food allergy is when people don’t label things. Such an instance is where the title of this blog post comes from. In June, I worked as the lead intern for my university’s MFA program’s residency. At the residency, lunch is provided for everyone, in this instance, catered by the university (a contracted company that provides dining services). One of the people attending the residency had an allergy to walnuts. Those responsible for catering were made aware of this, but nonetheless, walnuts showed up in lunch for the first 2-3 days. The first day, there wasn’t even a label on the food so diners could avoid problem food. The second day, two dishes with walnuts sandwiched the one main dish made without. Because people are dumb sometimes. By the third time it came up, and because of other crazy things going on, my boss just looked at me and sighed, “Fucking walnuts, man.” We were both so deliriously tired from all the crazy that we just burst out laughing. It became the phrase of the week for whenever something else went wrong.
The attendant with the allergy did end up ingesting a very small amount, but luckily did not have a serious reaction. Regardless, it is times like these that should remind us that for many, gluten, dairy and other food allergies are not “lifestyle choices,” or “fad diets.” I do not avoid dairy because I think it’s going to make me look better or help me lose weight (which it has, incidentally). I avoid it because if I don’t, it feels like a swarm of lobsters is waging war in my lower abdomen. And this is a mild reaction compared to some of my friends.
What still seems to happen is that I am labeled a “picky eater.” I am. Plain and simple. But I have to be. And trying to belittle me and others with such adjectives is hurtful and ignorant. Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. And from 2004 to 2006, there were approximately 9,500 hospital discharges per year with a diagnosis related to food allergy among children under age 18 years. This is not nothing. Food allergies are a real thing that need to be handled properly and with compassion.
What also helps in trivializing food allergies is when they become fad diets, co-opted by people who don’t suffer from the allergy. If you want to live dairy/wheat/gluten/nut/whatever else free, be my guest. But know what you’re talking about when people ask why you’re not eating it. There was a segment on Jimmy Kimmel weeks back where he stopped people on the street and asked those who swore off gluten if they knew what it was. 9 times out of 10, the people had no idea what gluten really was. Besides making the people look silly and ill-informed, it puts a whole cloud over the allergy. It becomes fodder for jokes and people begin to not take it seriously.
What I want to really get at with this post, and I hope I’ve done that, is food allergies are real and are serious. They are not fads or phases or bandwagons to jump on. Having a food allergy doesn’t mean anything about my taste in food. Trust me. If I could bite into a piece of pizza without scraping off the cheese first, I would be all over it. (Though, if I’m honest, my real weakness is cheesecake. I miss that like The Doctor missed Rose. More even.) So please, understand that those of us suffering wish we could change it, and what we need most is support and compassion.
Now, this post has been rather serious, so I thought I’d end on a humorous note. It’s important, I think, to sometimes joke about the serious stuff.
<iframe width=”480″ height=”360″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/wEb5a-I0kyg?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>