We Didn’t All Grow Up with Food Allergies

Sitting at the hotel bar during a recent food allergy conference I was surprised–no, shocked– when two mothers of food-allergic children told me that adults shouldn’t need help coping with their allergies. They were wondering why I was at the conference. Now before you get angry, let me explain their side. They assumed all adults with food allergies had developed them as children. Hence, by adulthood, food-allergic folks should be experienced–physically and emotionally–at handling restrictions and reactions.

Imagine! I had no idea some people thought this way! Of course, I quickly took this opportunity to tell them how wrong they were.

I explained people can develop food allergies and celiac disease and other health issues requiring food restrictions at any time in life. I shared that my symptoms started in my late thirties, though it took nearly ten years to find out multiple food allergies, celiac disease, and eosinophilic esophagitis were the cause.

My kids ate everything–and I mean everything!–when they were little. Their food issues developed as teens. My oldest son realized dairy and eggs were off-limits in high school, and my youngest started showing signs of celiac disease his first year in college. I also mentioned one of my adult friends couldn’t eat dairy and gluten due to Crohn’s Disease and another developed life-threatening reactions to many foods in her thirties. Oh, and by the way, one of my favorite attendees at the conference was a spunky senior citizen with over 40 recently diagnosed food allergies and intolerances.

Adult with 40+ Allergies

After we were all on our second glass of wine, I may have suggested that getting diagnosed with food allergies as an adult may actually be more difficult than being diagnosed as a child. What I was trying to say is the food-allergic adults needed the conference as much as the parents of food-allergic kids did.  Figuring out all the foods containing soy, dairy, gluten and corn fell on my shoulders–I didn’t have mom and dad to guide me. My young adult sons taught themselves how to negotiate school cafeterias and participate in social activities with peers who didn’t get that food could make them horribly sick. My oldest even figured out how to eat dairy- and egg-free in Italy, the land of pizza and cheese.  After years of not needing to worry about allergy-friendly menus, or planes with peanuts, or explaining to family members why they couldn’t double-dip, becoming  “the weird person who can’t eat anything” is like being a foreigner in a new land–yet the doctors don’t offer any counseling.

I think the women were kind of tired of me by then. They wanted to get back to talking about preschools and camps. But this conversation opened my eyes to how some people may view adults with food allergies.  Will a waiter or chef who thinks I’ve managed celiac disease all my life  have a false sense of security that I know what I’m doing when ordering my food? Will my co-workers and friends not believe me when I become sick from food; after all, shouldn’t I know how to eat by now? My own mother doesn’t understand my health issues because I didn’t have food allergies as a child, so how can I expect strangers to understand?

Fortunately, there are those out there who do get it. The next few blog posts will focus on resources for teens and adults, starting with Erica Brahan’s “A Teenager’s Perspective on Food Restrictions: A Practical Guide to Keep from Going Crazy.” Gotta love the title.

Please be sure to let me know of any resources I miss. And remember, I do know how difficult a later-in-life diagnosis is–I am here to help.

We Didn’t All Grow Up with Food Allergies first appeared at Adventures of an Allergic Foodie.

18 thoughts on “We Didn’t All Grow Up with Food Allergies

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article, Amy! We adults have to cope with corporate lunches where we look like oddballs when we refuse food or pull out a sun butter sandwich on rice cakes from our pocketbook. And doctors who reduce adults to tears when they say “You could not possibly be allergic to all those foods.” The hyper-vigilance forces us to constantly self-parent. Thank you Amy for being such a help. It’s wonderful to feel that there is a community of us supporting each other. G-d bless you for
    creating this delightful blog and for being such a terrific resource and friend.

    Debby Smith


  2. I think developing food allergies or intolerances later in life is a double-edged sword — you have to re-learn everything and rework your life around it, rather than developing your life with the allergies in mind. But, I have to say I’m really glad to know how great French toast is, even if I never get to make it or eat it again (the vegan gluten-free versions just aren’t worth it).

    Those women sound a bit closed-minded. Adults with food allergies are doing a lot to help themselves that also helps anyone else suffering with food allergies in the future.


    • I love your attitude, Mary Kate! Being glad you at least got to taste French toast! Sometimes I think back to all the days of dieting I did as a young person and just wish I’d enjoyed the taste and pleasure of foods without worrying so much about my weight. Just as I started really enjoying food and cooking, I got celiac disease and allergies. :)


  3. Our former babysitter, who used to care for my peanut allergic son has developed a number of food allergies as an adult. I’m definitely sharing this with her. Thanks for sharing your perspective! Eye opening! It seems that adults with food allergies — and their struggles — are hardly mentioned.


  4. WoW! Its amazing what people know or not know about food allergies. Im only 4 years in on mine and still learning alot, including some people dont have a clue, and some really dont care even if they do know!
    Loved reading your post:)


  5. Debi says:

    Just because people grew up with allergies, doesn’t always make it easier either. I have always had a poultry allergy but no one in my family understood. It wasn’t until I was about 8 years old and started reading labels that I started having fewer reactions. I didn’t even know what an epi-pen was until I was 20 even though I had been having anaphylactic reactions all this time (hives, vomiting, asthma). I now have difficulty if I touch it and have airborne reactions as well. Now my daughter has been recently diagnosed with a soy allergy. It is really overwhelming but we will figure it out together!!


    • Thank you for sharing, Debi. I wish you and your daughter the best. My soy allergy is by far the hardest one for me to deal with. Let me know if I can be of any help–or just be a listening ear.


  6. I did grow up with allergies, but I would agree with you that it must be harder to develop allergies as an adult. I hadn’t even thought about learning to navigate it alone, but I’ve got another reason. I have absolutely no idea what tree nuts taste like. Tree nuts do not tempt me. I look at them and I see death; on the unfortunate occasion that I’ve tasted them, all I taste is fire and fear and the sinking realization that I’m in trouble. But when someone develops an adult-onset allergy, they know what they’re missing. They remember foods that they liked and loved, they have cravings for those tastes and have to balance their health with what their body wants. My experience may not be quite the same as an adult who grew up with a soy or egg allergy–things that are commonly not tasted but are often hidden inside foods–because they may be tempted by dangerous foods because they look and taste the same as the safe alternatives, but even so, they still have more experience. So I agree with you. I grew up learning and knowing how to manage my allergies, but I have a great deal of compassion for the adults thrown in with me after enjoying all foods for their whole lives.


    • Eileen, Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for being compassionate to those of us who develop allergies later in life. It means a lot to us to have understanding. And I hadn’t really thought about how someone with a nut allergy doesn’t miss nuts because they haven’t tasted them or associate them with negativity. I so miss the foods I can’t have now. Like the peanut M&Ms that sitting in the candy dish in my husband’s office. LOL!


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