I’ve had severe food allergies for as long as I can remember. Peanuts and seafood (shellfish and fish) are the biggest culprits. If I ingest these foods, even in trace amounts, I don’t just develop hives or feel sick to my stomach—I could need two injections of epinephrine and a visit to the ER. Yet, too many people still make light of my allergies.
Over the years, I have heard every uninformed, unhelpful, and insensitive comment or question about food allergies imaginable. But the reality is food allergies can be serious or even life-threatening, and they deserve to be taken seriously.
Some of the comments grind my gears more than others, but none of them are conducive to really understanding this frequently underestimated health issue. Most of the time, people insinuate that my food allergies are not real or try to force me to eat foods that I’ve already communicated are a danger. And believe me, I take offense.
Here are a few of the most annoying things you can say to someone with food allergies, plus a few comments or questions I'd suggest instead. This way, we can all be better informed—and respectful—about each other's health.
Don’t say: “Stop being so picky. One bite can’t kill you.”
Um, hello—it absolutely can kill me! One bite is actually all it takes with certain allergens. I'd consider myself a cautious eater, not a fussy one. Is it too much for me to ask that my food doesn’t make me sick or land me in the hospital?
This comment is just plain rude and gives me the sense that my health and well-being don't matter to you. It is a big deal if I'm exposed to "even just a little bit" of my allergens, so this nonchalant attitude could potentially put my health in danger.
No, I'm not being "picky" when I need to read a nutrition label or ingredient list meticulously, or when I ask a lot of questions while ordering at a restaurant, or if I would prefer to go to a different restaurant entirely. I'm being careful.
Don’t say: “OK but are you sure you’re allergic?”
Yup, I'm sure. I have experienced stomach pains, hives, and an anaphylactic reaction from consuming a food allergen. I’ve also gotten a skin prick test several times, not that I owe you an explanation or proof that my allergies are legitimate.
Sure, sometimes people question the truthfulness of an allergy out of ignorance. And yes, I know there are people out there who claim to have food allergies and don't actually have them (say, when a person is on a particular diet but doesn't want to tell the waiter that's the real reason they want the dish without sauce). Still, it can be hard to get questioned about your medical history every time you order.
In my case, there is nothing optional about the laundry list of foods I need to avoid. (In addition to peanuts and seafood, I'm also allergic to mushroom, oat, green pea, pecan, citric acid, MSG, flaxseed, cottonseed, among other things.) It’s exhausting, quite frankly, and it isn’t any easier when someone wrongfully assumes I am eliminating certain foods on the basis of dieting. Food allergies are a health condition; they are not a fad or route to weight loss.
Don’t say: “Come on, you’re being dramatic.”
There is an episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie Bradshaw asks the waiter if he can check to see if the dish she wants to order comes with parsley because she's "really allergic," when in reality she just doesn't like parsley. (Her boyfriend calls her out for lying and says she should just say that she doesn't like it, which is awesome.) That is dramatic, and the type of thing that makes it harder for people like me, who have legitimate food allergies, to ask for special accommodations.
There’s nothing dramatic about avoiding foods that make you ill. Food-related allergic reactions send someone to the emergency room every three minutes, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). That statistic shows just how common food allergies are and how often individuals like me are exposed.
Instead, feel free to ask: “Can I eat ____ around you?”
This is one of those questions that isn’t necessary but is honestly so appreciated. I have made it my goal to not let my food allergies affect everyone around me, but it is comforting when the people that you’re with take notice and proceed with care.
Of course, if you want salmon for dinner, you should have it. I would never be the one to say, “Absolutely not." But there are some precautions I insist upon: No drinking from my straw, putting your fork on my plate, or kissing me. I have to implement those rules if you want to consume one of my allergens at my table.
You can also ask: “What in the world is a skin prick test?”
I always appreciate this type of curiosity about the diagnosis process. If you give me the opportunity to explain it to you, you'll also realize that getting diagnosed with food allergies is not a fun time or something anyone would do unless they had a real reason to.
In general, the appointment takes about one hour, depending on how many allergens you are being tested for. Because I test for so many, my skin prick test is usually divided into two appointments and done on my back, although the forearm is an option, too. The allergist gently pricks or scratches the skin with a small plastic probe or needle so that a small amount of a solution containing the food allergen can enter your body just below the surface of the skin, as FARE explains. Results usually show up within about 30 minutes, and if you test positive for an allergy, you'll see that on the skin in the form of "a raised white bump surrounded by a small circle of itchy red skin,” FARE says.
My least favorite part of the skin prick test is the itching. Luckily, as soon as you’re done, the doctor can give you an antihistamine and some ointment for the affected skin. I know this doesn’t sound enjoyable, but I promise that if you’re having symptoms, you have to find out what’s causing them so that you can eliminate them from your diet or life.
You can also ask: “Is it possible that you will grow out of it?”
This is a completely valid question to ask because it is possible to outgrow food allergies in certain cases.
As SELF previously reported, it's rare for a person who developed a shellfish allergy as a child to outgrow it. Peanut allergies are also rarely outgrown, and of course, that is one of my most severe and tricky allergies. Honestly, if I could magically get rid of one of my food allergies, this one would be it. It’s one of those sneaky additives that can be hard to recognize in certain foods. It limits my exposure to Asian and Thai cuisine, and it makes going to baseball games a challenge.
But the truth is, I genuinely appreciate the hopeful thinking and curiosity, so thank you for asking.
You can also ask: “How does an EpiPen work? Do I have to stab you with it?”
I’m so glad you asked! A little background info: An EpiPen contains epinephrine, which is a chemical that opens a person’s airways in the lungs. They can reverse the effects of severe allergic reactions—and they are really easy to use. These are the instructions, according to EpiPen:
- Remove the injector from the case.
- Hold firmly with the orange tip pointing downward.
- Swing and push the orange tip firmly into the mid-outer thigh until you hear the click.
- Call 911.
It’s that simple to help save someone's life. Honestly, I wish more workplaces and schools taught individuals how to use them in the same way that CPR is taught. I don’t get this question nearly as much as I should, but when I do, it definitely puts a smile on my face.
And feel free to ask: “How do you even live with all of these food allergies?”
The reality is, I’m constantly in fear—and I think people are often surprised and more compassionate towards my food allergy needs if they give me a chance to convey this to them. It is a healthy fear though, and by no means do I let it run my life. But there is that voice inside my head that always questions, and then questions again, if a dish was made safely per my requirements.
Of course, the people closest to me know exactly what I cannot have, but it’s difficult to go to new restaurants and trust that the waiter has accurately communicated my needs to the chef. It’s also a little disheartening to interact with restaurant staff who aren’t informed about their menu. There is a certain level of trust that has to be built. But I learned long ago that if it doesn’t feel right or I have any skepticism at all, just don’t eat it.
Kendra Chanae Chapman is an entertainment professional and the blogger behind the food allergy blog Nope, Can’t Eat That Either, which focuses on life as a 20-something African American with food allergies. Chapman has a BFA from the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University.