Stressful Eating: Life with Food Allergies


By Mike Howie

The world can be a stressful place when you have a food allergy or sensitivity. Nut allergies are particularly common, causing affected people to avoid a variety of foods. Most obviously, there are the nuts themselves, which are commonly included in everything from snack packs to salads. But nuts are used in several other foods, too: French fries are often cooked in peanut oil, many vegetarian milk and butter substitutes use almonds, and a whole range of sweets are made with equipment used to process nuts.

Depending on the severity of an individual’s allergy, accidental exposure can lead to a variety of consequences. For someone with a mild allergy, a small exposure may only lead to itching or hives. But for someone with a more severe allergy, that same small exposure may cause breathing difficulties or even anaphylaxis. In theory, it may seem easy to avoid foods that cause allergic reactions. But it can be much harder in practice, and it can be particularly stressful for kids, teens, and their parents.

While it’s wise to be cautious, the stress and anxiety of avoiding allergens can lead to isolation. For one elementary school boy, the safest way to eat lunch was to sit at a nut-free table. That meant being removed from his friends who may have brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The isolation eventually became too much, and he chose to sit with his friends even though it made him nervous. But he was cautious and open with his them, asking them not to get too close and to wash their hands after eating.

What’s worse is when people don’t understand how serious a food allergy can be. In some cases, family members don’t realize what can happen if someone is exposed to food they’re allergic to. In fact, one teen recalls being chased with peanut butter ice cream as a child. He told his relative that he was allergic, but she still insisted that he try a bite.

Food allergies can even make some people not want to eat at all. After accidentally eating a walnut and having a severe reaction, one girl hardly ate for months and became obsessive about checking food labels.

Thankfully, the world is slowly becoming more conscious of and hospitable toward people with food allergies. Airlines no longer serve peanuts as in-flight snacks. Schools provide strict guidelines for what foods can be provided for class treats. And manufacturers are making stronger efforts to clearly label foods that contain potential allergens.

But it’s still important for individuals with food allergies, even children, to advocate for their own safety in daily life. That may mean asking restaurant staff how the food is made or carrying auto-injectable epinephrine every day. And, of course, it means being aware of foods that pose potential threats.

Discussion Questions

  • What types of food allergies have you encountered?
  • Take a look at the food in your kitchen. How many include potential allergens?


  • Allergen
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Epinephrine