How To Be A Friend To Someone With Food Allergies

As someone living with food allergies, I can attest to the fact that sometimes the hardest part of living with the condition is the social implications. There’s a lot of ignorance surrounding food allergies, and while some people just don’t quite understand, others are straight-up mean. People with food allergies want friends too, but we have to be picky about who we let in our inner circle for our own safety.

If you want to be a good friend to someone with food allergies, there are certain things that people with food allergies will look for in you. With a little bit of time, you can easily become the kind of friend that those of us with food allergies dream of having.

Why Befriend Someone with Food Allergies?

There are many reasons why those of us with food allergies make fantastic friends. For one, we have ALL the snacks. You can usually count on someone with food allergies having at least one kind of safe snack on their person. Oftentimes this is because we can’t count on there being safe food for us when we go places. Many of us also have a good understanding of food and know how to cook an inclusive meal or two. 

Besides that, those with food allergies often have a wonderful sense of empathy from living a life filled with unique challenges. People with food allergies face their fears each time they take a bite of food. They are also diligent, and know how to prepare for and face crises should they occur. And if that’s not enough, people with food allergies are LOYAL to those who treat them right. Should that be a food brand, a restaurant, or a friend – someone with food allergies will support those who support them above all else. 

Understanding Food Allergy Basics

The first step to becoming a good friend to someone with food allergies is learning about and understanding the basics of the condition. If you retain anything from this blog, I hope you remember that food allergies are a serious and life threatening chronic illness. While many of us have seen food allergies used as the punchline in movies or tv shows, the reality is that food allergies cause a lot of mental and physical strain. 

Anaphylaxis is the most severe type of allergic reaction, and it can be deadly. Those of us with food allergies take steps each and every day to avoid anaphylaxis – and we don’t get to take a break. We have to know what foods we are eating, and what our foods have touched at all times. This means reading labels, and asking many questions when we are eating out. Not only that, but we have to think about what we touch, and be conscious that we don’t put our hands on our food or mouth if they are not clean.

Cross contamination – exposure of tiny amounts of our allergen that we can’t always see – is the biggest obstacle in staying safe. Part of keeping ourselves safe means that we need to avoid accidental exposures to our allergens that we can’t even see because our bodies are oftentimes THAT sensitive. Sometimes this can be really difficult to do, and reactions can happen to even the most careful.

Always being aware of our surroundings is exhausting. We need to pay attention to how our body feels so that if we were to react, we would catch it soon enough. There’s always the chance that allowing oneself to react for too long could make it impossible to stop the reaction, rendering it deadly. On top of that, we are often subjected to opinions of people who don’t understand any of this. People who think we are too anxious or too annoying. Those of us with food allergies carry this burden with us as we move through life, and often keep it hidden from view unless we really trust you, or need to disclose for our safety.

Learn to How To Use An EpiPen

Because anaphylaxis is a constant threat, knowing how to use an epipen is a great way to be a supportive friend to someone with food allergies. Usually, people with food allergies can take care of themselves if they have an allergic reaction. However, there is always that chance that they have an anaphylactic reaction that knocks them unconscious or unable to take care of themselves. In this instance, knowing how to use an epipen is quite literally lifesaving for your friend with food allergies.

Talking About Food Allergies

What NOT To Say

Sometimes talking about food allergies can be too vulnerable for people, but most people will be open to answering questions about the condition if you ask in a genuine way. We are often subjected to questions that may have judgemental or rude undertones. These can be offensive, ableist and extreme in nature. People with food allergies are not going to be as receptive to you if you ask or say things like:

  • What do you even eat??
  • Can’t you just try a little bit? 
  • It can’t be that bad
  • I couldn’t survive if I had food allergies!

What To Say

The above examples are what NOT to say to someone with food allergies. Unfortunately, these are all things that have been said to me and many others with food allergies before. The above statements come across ignorant and judgmental to those with food allergies. The last statement is especially awful to say to someone who has to live with allergies each day. If you want to actually be a friend to someone with food allergies, and learn from them, there are many better ways to go about that. Try to come from a place of empathy when you ask questions, and understand that not everyone is comfortable sharing everything. Some questions you can ask are:

  • Are you comfortable telling me more about your allergies so that I can better understand?
  • What would you like people to know about food allergies?
  • What are your favorite foods to eat? (Don’t assume they can’t eat anything!)
  • Where would I typically find your allergens? Are there places that might be surprising?
  • Can you teach me how to use an epi pen?

Respect Boundaries & Be Considerate

If you want to be a good friend to someone with food allergies, respecting their boundaries – even if you don’t understand them – is very important. Food allergy specific boundaries often revolve around what a person feels safe eating and being near. For instance, some people with food allergies have no problem being in close proximity with their allergens. They might not mind if people eat them around them. However, never assume this is the case. Oftentimes, being close to their allergens is extremely anxiety-inducing for those with food allergies. For those with airborne allergies, it can even be deadly. Always ask your food-allergic friend what their level of comfort is before introducing food in their proximity. It is the kind thing to do, especially as sometimes it is difficult for those with allergies to express their discomfort right away.

Look Beyond Food

For many cultures around the world, food is an incredibly important part of any given gathering. It is often thought to be a sign of love and nurturing. However, situations that involve food can be very stressful when you have food allergies. We often know that people mean well when they offer food, but that adds to the anxiety we can feel when we have to turn the food down. If you want to be a good friend to someone with food allergies, try to think of things that don’t always revolve around food when it comes to hanging out. Non-food centric ideas include:

  • Bowling
  • Hiking
  • Art classes/ craft days
  • Museums

Try to understand that some people with food allergies may not feel comfortable eating anything that does not have a label or that was not made by them. When looking for gifts for someone with food allergies, try to avoid giving them home baked goodies or food-based items. Making baked goods for someone with food allergies can actually cause us more emotional stress as we often have to turn it down. Things like books, craft kits, hair accessories, puzzles, or small home decor items may be suitable gifts for someone with food allergies.

Keep in mind that many soaps, cosmetics, candles and perfumes have common allergens, so unless you can verify they are safe, you might want to avoid those.

Let Them Chose the Food

If there is going to be food involved, make sure you keep your allergic friend in the loop. Ask your food allergy friend what they feel comfortable eating and prioritize that. Some people may have certain restaurants that they feel safe eating at, and other people may avoid restaurant meals altogether. Asking them to teach you to cook (in an environment they may feel safe cooking in) is another idea. Some people with food allergies only trust their own kitchen due to cross contamination, so be prepared for some people to bring their own food even if you try to host a gathering with safe food. The golden rule is to be mindful of your specific friend and make sure they feel safe if food is involved. 

Accommodation is Key

Taking the time to learn about food allergies for the allergic friend in your life is one of the best things you can do. Let your friend with allergies open up to you about their allergies if they feel comfortable. If you don’t have food allergies, it can be hard to really understand what living with them is like, but a little effort goes a long way.

Ask your friend with allergies how you can support them, and make it clear you want to include them in a way that feels safe. Remember that not everyone handles food allergies the same way. At the end of the day, those of us with food allergies are still people. We want friends who will support us, and to enjoy life with. With a little accommodation, someone with food allergies may be the best friend you ever had.