By Laura Lawrence (Dietetic Student at Leeds Becket University, Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK)
Laura tells her story of growing up with a food allergy…….
Growing up with a food allergy is something a great deal of children experience in their lives. About 20 million people in Europe suffer from one or more food allergies (www.bps.org.uk, n.d.). The most affected age group is children under the age of three as it is estimated that 1 in 14 of them suffer from one or more (www.nhsinform.scot, n.d.) food allergies. A child is diagnosed when the immune system in their body reacts to a food in a harmful way, which is known as an allergic reaction.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction can vary massively from a mild itch to anaphylactic shock, which means that children will need to receive individualised care, support, and advice on how to manage their allergies. For example, two children with a peanut allergy may have completely different reactions if they consume peanuts. Some children may have a severe allergy to peanuts, other children may suffer a milder reaction. As children can have very different reactions to their food allergens, living with one or more allergies can impact children’s lives in very different ways. In this blog, I’m going to explore some of the experiences children have while growing up with food allergies and explain a little bit about what it was like for me….
When I was around two years old my mum gave me some chopped-up cherry tomatoes to snack on. After a little, while my face turned red with an itchy rash, and I was clearly in distress. She quickly rushed me to the hospital, and later I was diagnosed with a food allergy. As time went by, I developed 11 different food allergies as well as allergies to cats, horses, and pollen.
Growing up with allergies has been shown to have a psychosocial impact on a child, and this includes food anxiety and dietary/social restrictions. Research has shown that for those with food allergies, having a harmful reaction to food is the most persistent fear in people of all ages. This can lead the child to limit social experiences in order to avoid the risk of having a harmful reaction. For example, 20% of children living with a food allergy in Italy have never attended a birthday party. (www.bps.org.uk, n.d.).
I can certainly relate to the feeling of being uncomfortable, and even embarrassed as a guest when served something I couldn’t eat. If this happens as a child before developing self-confidence, it can be an even more distressing experience and may put the child off social gatherings completely. Staying away from social events as a child like birthday parties or after-school clubs can feel alienating during a time when social interaction with their peers is an important part of a child’s development. No child likes to feel left out!
During very early childhood I didn’t give much thought to my meals, and the worry or burden of making sure I didn’t eat the wrong food was carried by my parents and not me. It was when I started school that I became more aware of the risks. I had more responsibility as I grew older, in ensuring that I didn’t consume foods that I was allergic to. It was during my school years that I started to experience feeling slightly different from my peers the during snack-times and mealtimes.
When going through childhood and adolescence, a child experiences a huge number of changes, both in body and in mind. It is a time when children start to experience the pressure to “fit in” and want to have minimal differences compared to their peers. Mealtimes at school (or in any other place where meals are provided), can become an uncomfortable experience. Whilst some may not think much of a child having to collect a meal from the school canteen that looks different to everyone else’s meal, it can cause a lot of internal stress and anxiety and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Another factor that is important to mention, is that the risk of nutritional deficiencies increases with food allergies and is further magnified when a child (due to the fear of allergic reaction), avoids a number of other foods or avoiding eating altogether when out, or having to eat differently compared to their peers, or having to analyse every food label. As a child, because I was allergic to many vegetables found in salads, I started avoiding the salad served at school to the point where I wouldn’t even consider checking if I could have it or not. I therefore missed out on not only the nutrients the food could provide, but also the experience.
Growing up with a Food Allergy
Whilst both growing up as a child with food allergies and caring for one can be a difficult challenge to tackle, there are ways to make it feel more manageable and make sure you and your child can experience enjoyment with food and during mealtimes:
- Something that helped my parents, and me was to write detailed lists of what foods I couldn’t have and foods that I could have and give the lists to family and friends. This supported me in feeling less fearful of visiting other people’s homes once I knew that they were aware of my allergies.
- An effective way to start educating a child on their allergies and communicating to them what is safe to eat and what isn’t, is by starting to point to different foods when the child is still young that they are allergic to, and also not allergic to, during food shopping trips. As time goes on, the child will become more confident in knowing which foods unsafe, and which foods are safe for them to eat.
- It is also a good idea to teach the child to only accept foods that are offered by trusted adults like close family members or the child’s babysitter etc (www.foodallergy.org, n.d.).
- Allergy UK recommends the practice of confronting the fear and anxiety by making a list of places or experiences that you may have avoided in the past, and then listing different safety behaviours you might use in those situations to make the environment feel safer to you(Allergy UK | National Charity, n.d.).
- Discussing my allergies openly at home and normalizing the conversation around it also made me more comfortable with discussing my allergies outside of the home. Fortunately, food allergies do sometimes resolve over time, or the allergic reaction to foods becomes weaker and this has luckily been the case for me with most of my food allergies. The allergies that are more likely to resolve before reaching adulthood, are allergies to cow’s milk, wheat, and/or hen’s eggs. However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t apply to all children. (Anaphylaxis UK, n.d.)
- Meeting other children with food allergies can also help. Once I started to connect with other children with food allergies at school, and talking about it with them, it made me feel less different from others, and more confident and comfortable within myself. In some areas, there are local support groups, and it can be well worth joining one if you haven’t already.
Growing up is a challenge on its own. Finding your place in the world and navigating new experiences, responsibilities and emotions is a lot to go through, so the added stress and anxiety of making sure you don’t eat something that is dangerous for you can often feel overwhelming. In my case, my parents’ knowledge and guidance supported me in becoming more self-assured in knowing what was okay for me to eat and what wasn’t.
As I have grown older, I’ve been able to access valuable resources to further deepen my understanding of how to read food labels and how to minimize risk while maintaining a high quality of life. My food allergies are probably what has led me to have such an interest in nutrition and dietetics!
We all deserve to feel empowered to educate ourselves and the people around us about our own or our children’s allergies. The more allergies become a part of the conversations we have around food, the safer it will become for all children growing up with a food allergy. Let’s make the world safer for food allergic children and adults together!