You’re at a birthday brunch with the girls. You’ve done your homework by checking the menu for nut-free options beforehand. The waiter takes your order and you inform them about your allergy. The food finally comes and it looks delicious and Instagram-ready. Everyone is taking pictures of their plates and the birthday girl is having a great time.
A few bites in… you feel something irritating your throat. You drink some water in hopes to ease the irritation, but it doesn't help. You continue to drink water to make sure your airways are still open. You begin picking at your plate, examining it for allergens. Please don’t let this be an allergic reaction. Now is not the time. Your girl asks you if something is wrong. “No, I’m fine.” You state when in reality, you’re internally freaking out because your throat may be closing up.
This my friends… is food anxiety.
Another example of food anxiety can be the fear of others not taking your food allergy seriously. Let’s take the same scenario above, but instead of these being your close friends, it's a catered business meeting with co-workers you’re not too close with. Again, you did your homework and asked if the food was nut-safe prior, to which someone responded ensuring “sandwiches wouldn’t have nuts in it”. You trust them and assume it’s safe to eat. Halfway through the meeting, you experience the symptoms of an allergic reaction because your sandwich had pesto sauce in it (with pine nuts) without your knowledge. At this point, you’re nonverbal as your throat is closing and you’re beginning to lose consciousness. Your clueless co-workers are unsure of what’s going on, some asking you if you need water, others stare in bewilderment. None of them know to dig in your purse and inject you with epinephrine so that you can have enough time to get to the hospital.
This my friends…is food anxiety.
Food anxiety by definition is the fear of the consequences of food consumption and how it will affect the body. According to VeryHealthWealth.com, it can involve severe picky eating, low appetite, and fear of allergic reaction and it can present itself in various ways. For me, food anxiety becomes most prevalent at social events with food. And it mainly comes down to how I’ll be perceived. I never want to come off selfish by suggesting we eat somewhere else because of my allergy, and I don’t want to come off as rude when I don’t eat the food at a cookout or potluck because of cross-contamination risks and there’s no label.
These situations present a fine balance between being vocal, sacrificing for the sake of group wants, or packing an alternative/eating something before the event.
Although these situations can be uncomfortable, I never take them personally since I know it’s just a lack of knowledge and awareness. But don’t worry, I’m here to get you hip and right so that your next social gathering can be inclusive and anxiety free for your friends.
Step One (which can apply to numerous disabilities, not just food allergies) when planning an inclusive social gathering… include an accommodations request section on the RSVP. Not only does this show you’re considerate of all guests that may attend, but it also gives people the opportunity to state dietary restrictions and/or accessibility needs (closed caption video, interpreter, ramp/elevator access, etc.) This is such a simple gesture that takes the burden off of the guest to make sure they're accommodated by the host to ensure a good experience for all.
Step Two. Do your research. When considering catering or food options for your event, and one of your guests has stated a dietary restriction (vegetarian, lactose, food allergic, etc) ask if the restaurant/chef can accommodate these needs.
Step Three. Depending on the nature of the event and how food will be served, be sure to include labels on food options. It can be a cute nameplate that states potential allergens or a color code system where green is vegetarian and pink is nut-safe. Something that makes it easy for guests to know what they’re consuming goes a long way. You don’t understand the number of times I’ve had to chase down the waiting staff to ask the kitchen about what was in a specific food, and then by the time they got back to me the food was cold.
The same considerations apply on a smaller scale. Let’s say you’re road-tripping with your friends and it comes time to take a vote on where you want to eat. Everyone decides on Panda Express but you can’t eat there because they cook in peanut oil. And now you’re put in the awkward predicament of speaking up or suffering in silence. To avoid this, only vote on safe dining options and you can even ask your friend with the dietary restrictions and places they can eat at and the group can vote from those options.
Most importantly, take food allergies, or any disability accommodations seriously. Just because you may not fully understand it or its importance, doesn’t make it any less serious. And if you don’t understand, it’s okay to ask questions…in fact, I truly appreciate it when a friend’s mom would ask for a tutorial on how to administer an Epi-pen in the case of an emergency. It shows that they care, take my allergy seriously, and it eases my anxiety as I feel safe and understood.
Hopefully now with these tips, you can help to create a safe and inclusive environment for your friends with disabilities and share with others to do the same!