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How to Explain Food Allergies to Friends

With summer camps and upcoming back-to-school classes, it is likely you are going to make new friends who know nothing about you. With this comes the challenge of explaining your allergies to your friends. Personally, I enjoy going out to eat with my friends, so it's crucial they know about my allergies to prevent any cross-contamination and pick places that cater to everyone's needs. However, it’s sometimes difficult to share this information with questions like when do you tell them? How do you explain what food allergies are in simple terms without being too assertive? And finally, what do I do if they don't listen or understand? Hopefully, this article will help solve some of these issues and make this communication smoother.

1. When should you mention your allergies?

When with friends, especially new ones, it may feel awkward to introduce this topic, especially if you don’t want to make it a huge deal. Due to this, it depends on the situation, but typically you should inform your friends about your allergies when you feel comfortable and/or when it is necessary. In my own experience, I usually tell my friends about my dietary restrictions when I talk to them on almost a daily basis, and I feel confident they will not judge me and will be understanding. It’s best to mention it in a relevant context, for example, when eating lunch together or when sharing facts about yourself. This will make the conversation flow better, which can make it feel more natural and less stressful.

However, if you are in a situation that might be unsafe, it is better to initiate the conversation then. For example, if you have a deadly peanut allergy and your friend is eating a PB and J sandwich, it is crucial to inform them of your allergies and tell them to wash their hands or keep their distance. These types of situations can introduce this topic naturally and appropriately, which can make the conversation easier.

Below is a short possible scenario that you could follow when telling your friends:

You and your friend Mary are in the cafeteria and she is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

You: Hey, I am actually quite allergic to peanuts and could have a serious reaction to it.

Mary: Oh! What should I do?

You: Could you wash your hands and the table you are eating at really well after you are done? That would be really helpful.

Mary: Yeah, of course! Thanks for telling me.

2. How do you explain food allergies to someone who has never experienced them?

One of the biggest struggles of informing people, especially teenagers and children, is finding how to explain your allergy in simple terms so you can be safe while sharing the information. For example, many times when I tell someone I am allergic to eggs, they typically act shocked, and one of the most common questions is, “What does that mean?”.

In simple terms, a food allergy is a reaction from the immune system when consuming/coming in contact with a certain type of food(s). It's important to mention how symptoms can vary when having an allergic reaction as some may experience mild reactions like hives/itching whereas some may experience anaphylactic reactions like difficulty breathing which can be life-threatening, so not everyone’s reaction will be the same. These types of explanations are simple enough for people who may be unfamiliar with this topic to understand while sharing the crucial details and spreading awareness.

The first and most important thing when discussing this topic, especially with friends, is to highlight the gravity of the situation. Many allergies can be life-threatening, and no matter the relation to the person, it is most important to emphasize it. Secondly, you should always tell your friends what they should do to help you. Many people do not realize that their actions can be dangerous, so always inform them based on the severity of your allergies. For example, if your food allergy is airborne, you should highlight how even being near such a food could be dangerous. No matter what, it's of most priority to keep yourself safe and healthy.

What can I do if they don’t understand?

Due to a lack of understanding and misconception between sensitivities and allergies in the community, no matter how well you explain the situation some people may choose to undermine their severity. Unfortunately, there is always the fear of being bullied due to your food allergies, making it difficult at times to speak about it. In this case, try to keep reminding your friend about your needs, and if they continue to be unsafe around you it might be better to keep a distance. There are numerous resources available that share the importance of understanding food allergies so trying to share this information might help in explaining the situation. However, if nothing is successful, it's always important to remember to prioritize yourself and your needs rather than listening to peers.

I hope these tips are helpful and make these conversations smoother and less stressful in the future!


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