Navigating the World of Food with Restrictions but Not an Allergy
“Is it an allergy?”
This is the question I was asked when I went to a cafe for brunch with some friends and asked for their special without cheese and without the wheat wrap. Just the filling, which was still plenty of food.
I was confused because I didn’t have an allergy, but the question seemed to imply that if I answered “no” that they weren’t going to take it seriously.
Let me back up for a sec. I have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which means that certain foods make me sick. No life-threatening allergy here, but I’m going to have a bad day if I eat something that triggers me.
I tried to convey that to the server. I answered that it was not an allergy, but still a serious deal for me.
I try to be scrupulously honest whenever possible, but I feel like the question highlighted a blindspot in our society.
The idea that allergies are the only serious reaction someone can have to a stimulus, food in this case.
I’ve had many people assume I had an allergy when I gave them a list of foods I can’t eat before a dinner party. I’ve had people describe me as having an allergy to others even after I’d explained about my IBS. They told me after that saying it’s an allergy is easier because no one questions it.
The problem is that it continues to normalize that allergies are serious and not having an allergy means you’re fine to eat whatever.
I’ve even known individuals with Crohn’s (a very serious reaction to gluten that can send them to the hospital) to say that they have an allergy to wheat in order to make sure they get the consideration they need.
Everyone knows about allergies. Epi-pen, hives, choking, the whole deal.
However, I’ve been reading about this growing trend of people who choose to exclude certain foods from their diet (such as gluten) to say that they have allergies. They think the restaurant is ignoring their preference, so they force the issue by claiming a health condition.
This, in turn, has supposedly led to restaurants actually not taking claims of not being able to eat certain foods seriously. If you say it’s an allergy, they have to respect that. But if you just order a dish without the offending ingredients, then they may figure that it’s not a serious thing. I don’t know if that is really the case, but it helps explain the interaction I had.
My friend translated the question for me: “Is some cross-contamination okay or do you need them to use the dedicated cookware?”
Ah, okay. Well in that case, innocent cross-contamination isn’t going to send me to the emergency room. It is an open kitchen after all. However, that doesn’t mean don’t try to keep my food separate.
It seems like there isn’t a code for “it’s not going to kill me, but it will make me have a bad day.”
I don’t eat out at restaurants much for this reason. I don’t want to claim an allergy I don’t have just to get my food restrictions taken seriously. People with actual allergies need that consideration. And I hate lying.
It’s easier to cook at home with ingredients I know are safe.
Sometimes I just want a break though. There are more restaurants and cafes and other food establishments that cater to a food-restricted population in general. Their menus are, by design, safe for people like me. I still often have to ask for alterations because my issues cut across the big categories, but it is easier to make something work.
And sometimes I just want to go to a regular restaurant with some friends. I’m grateful whenever a place is gracious about accommodating my needs, but every time I get asked that question “is it an allergy?” it makes me stop for a moment and assess how serious my problem is.
Am I willing to risk distress today or would I rather exaggerate my disease?
That’s not a choice I want to make. So I’m trying to raise awareness for gastrointestinal disorders when the issue comes up.
My usual response is something like: “It is not an allergy, but I will become ill if there is a significant amount of cross-contamination.”
There is a whole range of gastrointestinal disorders that merit serious consideration but are not allergies. They are no fun to have and even less fun to announce to the whole table when a server asks about my request to alter a dish.
So please, just remember that allergies are not the only serious reaction out there. Some of us just don’t want to spend the next 3 hours in a bathroom.