Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Invisible Impacts of Living with Food Allergies

A research paper


Research Question:

How does having food allergies impact people beyond the scope of restricting one’s diet?

Picture eating lunch with your friends in elementary school. Everyone bought their lunch at school, but as always, you are the only one who brought lunch from home. Suddenly as you see your friend carrying a PB&J to the table, your stomach starts hurting, you feel nauseous, and your breath begins to shorten. One question goes streaming through your mind: Am I having an allergic reaction? Generally, if someone experiences this, the clear-cut answer would be, yes, you are. Still, as a person who has dealt with having food allergies your whole life, you know that the symptoms you are feeling may likely be the crippling anxiety that often consumes you upon contact with your allergen. This situation is an experience that most individuals with severe food allergies can relate to despite common assumptions about food allergies. The majority of the general population believes that having food allergies means that people simply have to avoid certain foods and are not affected in any other way. However, having food allergies brings many other consequences to those stricken with the condition. This leads to a question that most nonallergic individuals have never understood: how does having food allergies impact people beyond the scope of restricting one’s diet? Food allergies affect people beyond the scope of restricting one’s diet by creating a sense of otherness in people that contributes to social exclusion; food allergies also cause anxiety in people, which can restrain different aspects of their lives.

Social Exclusion

Food allergies cause many young children and teens to feel like outsiders. Almost every social aspect of an adolescent's life is impacted as a consequence of having food allergies. This is exemplified in The National Institute of Health article, “Quality of life in the setting of anaphylaxis and food allergy.” The article states, “Virtually all outdoor activities, such as school events, school trips, overnight stays with friends and parties, are affected [as a result of food allergies]. Many children are either excluded from these events or need to be accompanied by their parents” (Lange). This shows that allergic children’s experience with attending social activities varies significantly compared to the average child. Considerable planning is required to participate in a gathering, including coordinating food, calling restaurants, packing food, or training others involved. Special attention and preparation requirements can cause people with food allergies to feel embarrassed by their condition or the unwanted attention they receive. The need to make accommodations for food allergic individuals sometimes results in their “exclu[sion]” from social activities. Further, children are often afraid of participating in activities such as going to a friend’s house because of food insecurity. As a result, parents often accompany their allergic children to these activities until they reach adolescence, thereby hindering or setting back social development. Not only are children with food allergies excluded from special events, but also from everyday occurrences such as eating lunch with their peers. This exclusion has a negative mental impact on children. An episode of The Itch: Allergies, Asthma, and Immunology podcast that features a conversation with family therapist and food allergy advocate Lisa B. Rosenberg, illustrates this sentiment. Rosenberg states, “Schools [...] and [...] extracurricular activities are [...] working to keep everyone safe because safety is a priority, but they're excluding the kids while doing that. [...] We're really seeing the fallout of that exclusion now with the psychosocial impact on the kids that are living with it” (Gupta and Kwong). Although people afflicted with food allergies want to remain safe at all times, ensuring their own safety can come at the cost of their mental well-being. Being singled out can cause young children and teens to believe that they are less of a person than their peers. These allergic individuals may think that something is wrong with them because of the extra security measures they endure. In today’s society, being “different” is not always considered desirable. This causes most children and teens to want to “fit in” with those around them. As a result, the special attention children with food allergies receive can cause them to believe that they are social outcasts.

Not only are children excluded from social activities for having food allergies, but peers also bully them for it. This is evident in the poster, “Bullying, School Violence, and Food Allergies,” which states that “Eighty-two percent of respondents [from a study about bullying] indicated some bullying involvement during their school years [...] Allergies were the most prevalent chronic illnesses (38%) reported” (Brown and Cash qtd. in Cash). A large number of individuals endure torment because of their food allergies. People often bully others with food allergies by showing or even threatening them with their allergens. As the logical conclusion would entail, this is extremely dangerous to the victim. Not only can this type of confrontation lead to an allergic reaction, but also cause people with food allergies to feel like a misunderstood outsider. This can be seen in the article, “Living with severe food allergy,” which states that “Children may have to deal with unhelpful and hurtful comments, such as being the child who is ‘allergic to everything’[...] Children may feel upset about feeling different” (Evans and Rouf). Children with food allergies also deal with more subtle forms of bullying that are more common and equally distressing. Upon hearing other’s “hurtful comments,” allergic children often feel like their peers are not taking them seriously and that no one knows about the difficulties they are enduring. Not only does this lead to children feeling sad and defeated, but it also leads to them feeling that they are not safe among their peers. This is because individuals with food allergies think that the kids around them do not understand the severity of their disease. As a result of not feeling understood, children with food allergies feel like outsiders.

Anxiety

Food allergies generate anxiety, specifically in young children and adolescents, which can negatively impact their quality of life. The primary fear that food allergies generate is the fear of having an allergic reaction which can then spread, causing anxiety in various facets of life. As a result, people with food allergies have a lower quality of life than those who do not have the condition. An example of food allergies hindering people’s enjoyment of life is evident in the paper, “Food Allergy in Youth: A Primer for Allied Health Professionals.'' The paper states that “Social gatherings, such as school dances or birthday parties, can be risky events for the food allergic. The fear of eating food contaminated with an allergen may limit youth from fully engaging in social events” (Welch et al. 3). The fear of having an allergic reaction at a social gathering can cause people with food allergies not to enjoy their experience. Although allergic people are physically at a party, they may not be mentally present because their mind is clouded by the worry of any allergens nearby and whether their safety is at risk. This obstructs their ability to make the most of their social interactions with others. As a result of this anxiety, allergic individuals may unintentionally exclude themselves from social situations. Inadvertently excluding oneself grows in prevalence as individuals with food allergies reach adolescence and young adulthood. This is because food allergy anxiety escalates as children get older because of their increased independence. As a result, the quality of life of allergic individuals decreases as their age increases. This is evident in the National Institute of Health article, “Quality of life in the setting of anaphylaxis and food allergy,” which states that, “A working group in Switzerland recently showed that older children experience a greater reduction in QoL than younger children. This is an effect of the greater independence that may be perceived by food-allergic children as a burden” (Wassenberg et al. qtd. in Lange). As illustrated by the study, as children with food allergies progress into young adulthood, they become more self-reliant.With increased independence comes greater responsibility for managing food allergies. No longer can adolescents and young adults rely on their parents to advocate for their allergies. Whenever they eat out with friends or on a school trip, they must tell the waiter about their food allergies and explain how to accommodate them. This is a significant effort since allergic individuals can perceive many of the day-to-day food interactions they experience as life-threatening. Once separated from their parents, people with food allergies essentially have their own life in their hands, producing high anxiety levels. Because of heightened anxiety, older children may not want to attend social gatherings that include food, impairing these allergic individuals from enjoying different aspects of their life.

Additionally, anxiety can cause allergic individuals to stop eating. This sentiment is expressed in a podcast interview with Lisa B. Rosenberg when she states that she started “seeing an explosion of nine, ten, eleven-year-olds coming to [her] office recently with food allergy anxiety because they [were] really starting to become aware of the gravity of the diagnosis and a lot of times, they [did not] want to eat; they stop[ed] eating” (Gupta and Kwong). When children are old enough to realize that food allergies are an extremely serious condition, they can go into a state of shock. This shock can result in social isolation or even avoidance of food. People with food allergies usually avoid food for two reasons: one, they are afraid of consuming something they are allergic to, and two, they are fearful of developing an allergy to a preexisting “safe” food. For example, allergic individuals may experience anxiety toward consuming an allergen when eating at an unfamiliar restaurant; they may also be anxious about sitting near someone eating their allergen at school. People with food allergies may additionally be worried that something that they eat every day can turn into an allergen. As a result of these reasons, allergic individuals may not eat food when they are away from home, or even worse, they ward off food altogether. This creates a pattern of disordered eating in some individuals with food allergies (Wróblewska et al.). Not eating sufficient food is extremely dangerous and can hinder allergic individuals’ performance in activities such as paying attention in class or playing sports. As a result, individuals with food allergies who also experience anxiety toward eating have a repressed quality of life compared to others who eat freely.

Whether or not food allergies impede individuals from living life to the fullest depends on how people chose to deal with them. People can allow food allergies to define their identity and cause them to skip out on meaningful life experiences or learn to manage their condition while living their lives. Food allergies do not determine people’s identity; they are merely one facet of their life. As long as allergic individuals adhere to this ideology, they can live like any other normal person. When faced with adversity, people can either sink down in defeat or face the challenge head-on. Everyone faces hardship in life, but it is how people react and move forward that determines who they are as a person.




Works Cited

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