Fear and Food Allergies
Food can mean many different things to many different people. For some, food is just something that is eaten to sustain. For others, it’s a creative outlet or source of joy and comfort. Whether you tend towards one side of this spectrum or the other, the space that you allot for food and all its connected meanings within your life will have a strong influence on your relationship with food.
For the vast majority, fear and food are two things that just don’t exist together.
Food should be an uncomplicated part of life; a basic need that should be met without requiring much thought or attention.
That is unless you have food allergies. In this case, much of your thought and attention is required each and every time you put food to your mouth.
Eventually, the task of meeting a basic need becomes increasingly complicated, nerve-racking, and fear-inducing; the very things that do not belong anywhere near a healthy relationship with food.
For clarity, I feel that it is important to preface the following discussion with a reminder. Not all allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances are created equal. Some are life-threatening while others simply are not. In fact, these three words often get confused and misused which can be a big problem especially when those who have sensitivities or intolerances communicate their reaction as an allergy.
What follows about managing food fear must be taken in the context of true food allergies, or more specifically, anaphylactic allergies which can be life-threatening. In these cases, it’s normal and necessary to experience fear for reasons of personal safety. In other cases of less severe intolerances and sensitivities, you may experience some degree of worry around food, but fear is not necessary or justified.
Fear Functions as a Defence Mechanism
Many people have at least one irrational fear; maybe it’s heights, birds, small spaces, or public speaking. None of these things can seriously harm you or end your life, so of course, it makes sense that fear is a normal and justified part of living with life-threatening food allergies. People with food anaphylactic allergies have to face their fear multiple times a day – with every meal, snack, lunch out, and work holiday party. Our fears are an unavoidable part of life.
I’m sure there have been times when you’ve felt silly about the amount of fear you have over food and eating because of your allergy or felt embarrassed about making a big deal over your allergens when out to eat with others. I know I certainly have.
Food fears related to food allergies
There are significant differences in relationships to food and eating for those with food allergies compared to those who can eat whatever they want without a worry in the world. When put this way, it’s easy to see how most of these uncomfortable, anxious feelings of embarrassment come from being perceived as different from those around us.
These feelings can be really overwhelming and hard to deal with, especially when we have to relentlessly confront them. Dealing with these difficult emotions requires that we find healthy and effective ways to cope.
Coping with Food Fear
The only surefire way to eliminate food fear when you have allergies is to avoid eating altogether. Refusing to eat or leave the safety of your home aren’t reasonable options, but what we can do that is more socially accepted is implement a long list of food rules and restrictions to help us feel safe and comfortable.
One of the purposes that fear serves is to defend us, protect us, and keep us safe. When ingesting even a small amount of an allergen can end in a trip to the emergency room, it makes complete and total sense that fear is a normal part of life for those with food allergies. While this fear serves an important purpose and shouldn’t be ignored, it can also get the better of us and spiral out of control if it’s not watched with a careful eye.
Not letting fear take control
To help keep fear in check and prevent your food allergy from dictating more of your life choices than it deserves to, what you want to watch out for is signs that your food allergy fear has extended beyond your allergens. For example, if you are someone who has a diagnosed allergy to peanuts, you may find yourself avoiding all nuts as a way of creating a safety buffer zone that helps you cope with the fear and anxiety you experience.
This may work for a while to help you feel a little safer, but eventually, it’s not quite enough so you then decide that seeds are a little risky, as well as all legumes, so you cut those out too. Following this pattern without proper education and medical consult can quickly lead to a very restricted and potentially nutritionally inadequate diet.
Not only can food rules and restrictions lead to nutrient deficiencies, they can also lead to further food sensitivities if and when you do choose to reintroduce a food that was unnecessarily restricted.
Food Fear Beyond Allergies: Disordered Eating
Just like the rest of the world, those with food allergies are also exposed to the abundance of media messages about food and nutrition – polarizing headlines about the latest cure-all superfood and what the research has to say about foods that should be held responsible for all that is bad in the world. It’s easy to see how foods so quickly get labelled “good” and “bad”, and how easy it is for these labels to influence our relationship with food, including which ones we feel safe around and which ones we fear.
In order to cope with the type of fear that comes along with all the information (and misinformation) we have about food and nutrition and how these factors affect our health and well-being, it’s common for us to create food rules to help us stay away from certain foods or eating habits. For example:
- Restricting your eating to only certain times of the day
- Exercising or skipping meals after eating unhealthy foods
- Avoiding hunger by drinking diet soda or coffee, or chewing gum
- Restricting consumption of grains and grain products (or avoiding entire food groups without a medical reason)
These may all seem like normal, harmless habits, but they really go to show how the lines have become pretty blurry between honest heathy eating and various subtle attempts to manage health and weight performed under the guise of wellness. These food rules are most certainly not a part of normal, healthy eating. They too are ways of coping with discomfort and fear – but instead of food allergy fear, these emotions are related to eating in today’s food and nutrition obsessed world.
The thing is, it’s a little too easy to make some of these problematic behaviours about your food allergies. Chances are with all your other food rules that are related to your food allergies, no one will notice the addition of a few extras. What may not be so well known is that if these abnormal eating behaviours become more extreme and restrictive and go unaddressed for too long, you could be at risk for developing disordered eating.
If we think back to that example of the peanut allergy turning into avoidance of all nuts, then all seeds and finally all legumes, it’s easy to see how adding a few more food rules and restrictions on top of the ones related to your food allergy fear can quickly leave you without many options.
→ A healthy relationship with food and our bodies does not involve fear. But with food allergies, fear and food must co-exist. When an emotion that doesn’t belong anywhere near food and eating is present, our relationship with food is the first thing to suffer.
→ Keep your food fear in check by watching out for signs that your food allergy fear has extended beyond your allergens. Food fear that extends beyond your allergens could be a sign that you are lacking some diversity in your coping strategies.
If part one of this series all about food fear, food allergies and your relationship with food resonated with you. Part two is all about how to start challenging your food fears (while still keeping you safe) with Intuitive Eating. I can’t wait, I hope you’ll join me!
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Alida is a Registered Dietitian and food allergy girl who is passionate about helping you master healthy living. She loves simplifying nutrition science into realistic strategies. She works with clients to find Food Freedom.