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Navigating Food Allergies: Tips for Safe and Healthy Eating

Food allergies are unfair. Particularly if you’re into eating right. You not only have to worry about getting the right nutrients, you have to worry about not getting them from the wrong foods. Here, we’ll drop some common food allergies and talk about ways to avoid them while still getting the good things that those foods promise the rest of us.

What Are Food Allergies?

For the sake of this article, we’re going to talk about allergies as being inclusive of intolerances. That’s not technically true, but the two conditions can impact the individual in similar ways.

Food allergies are essentially an autoimmune reaction. For whatever reason, the body recognizes certain chemicals – typically proteins – as harmful agents. The body’s overreaction can range from uncomfortable to fatal even though it’s responding to a chemical that isn’t actually harmful. If you’re allergic to peanuts, it’s not the peanut that kills you, it’s your own body.

Intolerances typically stem from your body being unable to properly process a certain nutrient – again, often a protein or a fiber. For example, gluten intolerance won’t kill you the way that a shellfish allergy can, but it can certainly ruin your day. 

Sometimes, these lines get blurred. For example, problems with dairy are technically allergies but they manifest more like intolerances. That’s just one more reason that we’re lumping them all together as “food allergies.”

Know Your Enemy

The key to avoiding food allergens is knowing what your allergies are. If you have a potentially fatal allergy, this may sound silly – of course people know what their allergies are! However, because different allergies and intolerances affect different people differently, some people don’t discover their dietary sensitivities until they’re already adults.

For example, gluten intolerance or dairy allergies can manifest as stomach or intestinal discomfort or difficulty with bowel movements. But, we eat so many different foods, it can be difficult to know for sure what foods cause which symptoms. And, because we tend to think of allergies as being the life-threatening kind, people might not know what their symptoms mean.

If you think that you have an intolerance, consider keeping a food diary. Consider writing down what you eat and how you feel. Try to do this without having any suspects in mind, as this might tamper with your results. If you want to feel more certain, you can always talk to your doctor about your concerns.

Common Allergies and Intolerances

Peanuts/Tree Nuts: A peanut allergy is a the classic food allergy: your body reacts to a protein in peanuts, peanut products, or even foods that are processed in the same facilities as peanuts. Most people with a peanut allergy are also allergic, in varying degrees, to other common nuts including walnuts, cashews, and almonds.

The strength of this particular allergy contributes to peanuts being the number one cause of anaphylaxis – that’s when the allergic response is so strong, you’re throat closes and you can’t breathe. This isn’t the only response. Other possible symptoms include skin irritation, itchiness, and digestive problems and can depend on the kind of contact.

The downside to a peanut allergy is that so many foods (mainly sweets and breakfast bars) contain nuts or are processed on equipment that handles nuts. The upside is that the allergy is so prevalent that packaged foods that contain nuts are clearly marked in bold after the ingredients list.

Further, a number of popular traditionally peanut-based items have peanut-free alternatives. For example, butter made from sunflower seeds instead of peanuts is widely available (and at least as delicious as peanut butter).

Shellfish: Shellfish is a less common but similarly life-threatening allergy with similar symptoms potentially including anaphylaxis. The good news for people with a shellfish allergy is that it really is just shellfish – think lobster, shrimp, and crab – and can eat other common fish like salmon and tuna. This allergen is commonly noted on ingredients lists.

Soy: A soy allergy is another classic example of the body reacting to a protein. The symptoms are the same as a peanut allergy, potentially including anaphylaxis, through soy allergies aren’t as likely to be as strong as peanut allergies.

And that’s good news, because soy can make its way into just about everything these days. Most processed foods contain soy in some form or another. However, the allergy is common enough that it is labeled on packaged foods.

Eggs: Eggs are one of those tricky foods. It’s technically an allergy in that it is triggered by a protein, but it behaves like an intolerance in that it typically manifests in digestive problems rather than a full immune response. While serious reactions to an egg allergy are extremely rare, mild reactions are common enough that packaged foods containing eggs are labeled.

Here’s an interesting fact: many people discover that they have egg allergies while very young but grow out of the allergy by adulthood.

Wheat: There are two types of allergies and intolerance when it comes to wheat. You can be allergic to wheat like you can be allergic to the previously mentioned foods and experience similar symptoms potentially including anaphylaxis, but you can also have complications with wheat because of Celiac Disease, which causes abdominal pain, and constipation.

Wheat allergies typically manifest in young age just like other allergies. However, Celiac disease may not appear until later in life. Be aware as well, that Celiac Disease is passed down genetically and can be carried by people who don’t show symptoms.

Wheat as an ingredient is marked on a great many foods. Ironically, some of the easiest foods for people with wheat intolerance to eat are baked goods. Flours can be made out of a wide range of plants that don’t trigger people with wheat intolerance. But, be aware that a number of those wheat-alternative flours are made out of other common allergens.

Dairy: Dairy is another common allergy that manifests as an intolerance. That is, people with dairy allergies are at no risk of anaphylaxis but instead experience symptoms like vomiting, abdominal pain, and abnormal bowel movements. Dairy is noted as an allergen on packaged food labels.

The severity of symptoms can vary from person to person and indeed some people with a known dairy allergy will, on occasion, partake of the occasional scoop of ice cream or slice of pizza. However, most common dairy foods are now available in non-dairy alternatives. Again, be aware that they may be made out of other common allergens like soy and almonds.

For those of you who do find your symptoms occasionally worth indulgence, there is a growing market of over-the-counter digestive aids to make those symptoms more bearable yet.

Navigating the Food-Filled World

So, you have a food allergy. What now? Avoiding allergens in packaged foods and at the shop can be easy enough. Even most catered buffet-style events these days will have cards that identify common allergens in dishes.

Restaurants can be a little trickier. Menus may or may not include partial ingredient lists. If you’re worried, ask your waiter for details. It might be wise to tell your waiter about any food allergies, even if you’re confident that your food doesn’t contain any allergens, it knowing ahead of time can help cooks try to avoid potential cross-contamination.

Nutrients You Need

But, what about getting the nutrients that you do need when you can’t eat certain foods? That’s doable, and most of the time you don’t even really need to worry about it if you eat an otherwise balanced diet. But, it’s natural to think about it.

No Nuts: Nuts are a decent source of protein, but they aren’t a major source for most people. The real health benefit of nuts come from natural oils and minerals. You can get those from other plant products like seeds and avocados – or from a supplement if you and your doctor deem it necessary.

No Shellfish: Like nuts, shellfish are a source of protein, but not such a major source that people can’t live without it. Shellfish also have healthy oils, but those can be gotten from other fish that people with shellfish allergies can eat. 

The real sticking point is iodine. In fact, iodine used to be so rare a mineral that the government encouraged salt to be treated with iodine. So, most people get more iodine than they need without even thinking about it. While too much salt is bad for you, a dash here and there can help you get this other essential mineral.

No Soy: Soy is incredibly good for you. But, it doesn’t really have anything in it that’s hard to find anywhere else. In the end, avoiding soy is a lot harder than getting along without it.

No Eggs: Eggs are like soy – they’re very good for you, but they don’t have any lynchpin nutrients that you need to scour the rest of the world for if you can’t have eggs.

No Wheat: A lot of people who can eat wheat choose not too. At least in the way that most people eat wheat most of the time, it doesn’t really supply anything other than carbs. Carbs aren’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s so easy to get too much of them, that cutting out food groups to get fewer of them isn’t necessarily a problem.

Now, whole wheat, on the other hand, comes with minerals, plenty of fiber, and even some protein – though not so much protein that going without is a problem. The minerals and the fiber can both be found in vegetables like broccoli. If other allergies don’t prevent you from eating flour substitutes, these can be a solid option, and might be healthier than flour in other ways too.

No Dairy: Dairy is a major source of calcium and other minerals, as well as fat and protein. Some milks are also fortified with vitamins like vitamin D that can be tricky to get in proper amounts. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and non-dairy animal products can help you to get these nutrients, as can supplements if deemed necessary in conversations with your doctor.

Don’t Panic

Knowing about your allergy is important but a food allergy diagnosis isn’t the end of the world. These days, substitutes are readily available for most common allergens that often replace the flavors, textures, and even nutrients of the real thing.

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