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FeaturesFeb/Mar 2012 Issue

Special-Diet Romance

A guide to dating with food allergies

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Let’s face it. Dating involves a certain degree of tension, anxiety and embarrassment. You worry about your outfit, your hair, your conversation skills. You wonder if your date is having a good time, fret over each awkward pause and speculate about a goodnight kiss. Yet those with food allergies have a litany of additional concerns competing for their attention. Will the restaurant be able to handle your needs? Are the ingredients of this dish safe? What about cross contamination—or for that matter, kiss contamination?

Inevitably, dating and dietary restrictions collide. Whether it’s dinner at a restaurant, a quick cup of coffee, drinks at a local bar or popcorn and snacks at a movie, food is an unavoidable part of dating. In addition, allergy management can be trickier than usual when you’re just getting to know someone.

What are the best ways to stay safe and have fun? Here are effective strategies for navigating your date with confidence.

The Plan

Prepare before the date even starts. Kyle Dine, program coordinator at Anaphylaxis Canada, recommends investigating your options in advance. “Research the restaurant and call to make sure there’s something you can eat,” says the popular children’s musical performer who is allergic to eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, seafood and mustard. “The more work you can do in advance, the more it takes the pressure off during the date.”

As you discuss restaurant options, take an active role in the planning. Suggest cuisines that are safer for you or restaurants you’ve been to before. If you’re allergic to dairy, for example, you might propose your favorite Asian restaurant as an alternative to an unfamiliar Italian eatery. Selecting a restaurant provides a natural opportunity to bring up your allergies for the first time. “Talk early on,” says Dine. “Let the person know what you’re allergic to and especially what they can do to help.”

Sometimes, a date may offer to cook a meal for you. While this gesture is romantic, it can be a terrifying prospect for the person with severe food allergies. At best, special dietary needs can make surprise dates and home-cooked dinners challenging, says Dine. But this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy an evening in. Suggest grocery shopping and cooking together to make the evening fun, romantic and safe.

Depending on the severity of your allergies and your comfort level, eating out or enjoying a home-cooked meal may not always be the best option. For some, it may be easier to plan dates that don’t revolve around food. “Non-food” activities, such as ice skating, hiking or going to see a play, allow you to get to know someone without culinary complications. Meeting for a drink or a cup of coffee is another simple option that may be more manageable.

Even if you opt for food-free dates, be careful. Just because you’re not at a restaurant doesn’t mean allergens won’t enter the equation. If you spend more than a couple hours with someone, you’re bound to find yourself stopping for some food. Be prepared: Bring a snack or know a safe place to eat nearby. And be ready to discuss your allergies with your date.

Your primary concern should always be safety, says Maria Acebal, CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). “Have your emergency medication on hand and know your allergy action plan. This is true for any type of outing but it’s especially important when you’re dining with someone who’s not yet familiar with your dietary needs,” she says.

© Thinkstock 2011/Photodisc

© Thinkstock 2011/Photodisc

 

The Talk

Effective communication with your date is the key to staying safe. Although food allergies don’t define you, they’re a part of who you are and you should be open about them, particularly if there’s risk for anaphylaxis, says Acebal. “You have to be upfront with the person you’re dating and let them know about your allergies, let them know where your epinephrine is, let them know what they should do if you get sick.”

This could happen as you and your date plan activities together or at the restaurant when you’re explaining your needs to the staff. Whenever the issue does arise, be clear and confident when explaining your allergies, what might happen in the event of a reaction and what your date needs to do in an emergency.

Being able to convey your dietary needs is an extremely important aspect of all food allergy management, says Sloane Miller, author of Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well with Food Allergies. “You have to be able to explain your allergies very clearly, concisely and confidently to someone you’re dating,” she says.

The exact way to broach the subject is a matter of personality and comfort level, Miller says. “There are many ways to handle it. But the important thing is that you do handle it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t wish that it would go away. Don’t hope that it’ll come up on its own. Meet it head on with confidence.”

Miller, who is allergic to fish and nuts, generally prefers to explain her allergies when it comes time to order food. “It’s a perfect opportunity to have that conversation in a casual, clear and confident way,” she says.

Give some thought to how you want to convey your dietary restrictions. Miller recommends coming up with “a few sentences that simply describe your needs and what you’d want the other person to do, if anything.” Be assertive and clear, but don’t be afraid to have a sense of humor about it.

Tone is important. If you seem nervous or make your allergies sound scary, you’ll make your date nervous, as well. If you’re relaxed and confident about your allergies, your date will feel the same way. Strike a balance. The message is that food allergies are serious but manageable.

The same communication strategies apply if a date invites you to a family or group event. Speak directly to your host rather than trusting your date to pass the information along. Offer to bring a dish to the gathering. Your host will appreciate the gesture and you’ll know for certain there’ll be at least one safe option on the table.

The Goodnight Kiss

At the end of the night (if all goes well), you may find yourself on the verge of a goodnight kiss. At this point, you’ve successfully planned an allergen-free evening, navigated a restaurant, home-cooked meal or family event safely, and explained your dietary needs to your date in a calm and confident way, so you should be in the clear, right? But as you close your eyes and lean in, a question pops into your mind: Wait, what did they have for dinner?

Research shows that food allergens may linger well after a meal. A 2006 study conducted at Mount Sinai School of Medicine demonstrated that peanut protein can remain in the saliva up to several hours after ingestion, enough to potentially cause a reaction. This means staying alert even after the meal is over.

In her food allergy memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, poet Sandra Beasley recounts a cautionary tale about one such kiss that changed her evening. In a long distance relationship at the time, she had braved hours of rush-hour traffic to see her boyfriend. Hoping for a romantic and fun-filled evening, she threw caution to the wind and gave him a big kiss as soon as she arrived, only to discover soon afterward that he had just guzzled a post-workout shake that contained dairy. She spent the rest of the night wheezing and sniffling and drowsy from a heavy dose of antihistamines.

Avoiding kiss-related mishaps during a date takes a bit of foresight, says Beasley, who is allergic to milk, soy, eggs, mangos and mustard, among numerous other foods. She says the easiest thing to do is to use humor and drop hints during the meal.

“If you can deliver these cues early in the evening, by the time you might be getting a goodnight kiss, it’s already taken care of,” she says. “You don’t have to say in that moment—Stop, you need to go wash up!”

You might try casually mentioning the many possible routes of exposure, such as direct contact, cross contamination, airborne allergens or even a kiss. It doesn’t need to be awkward. Just present the information as an allergy fun-fact and your date should be able to connect the dots.

Practically speaking, when it comes to avoiding an allergen-laden kiss, the best option is for your date to abstain from eating the food in question. If that’s not a possibility, it’s often best to forgo the kiss entirely or opt for a peck on the cheek.

Conveying this kind of information can be a bit uncomfortable, especially when you’re just getting to know someone. However, it’s far better than the alternative, which could lead to a trip to the emergency room and a traumatized date. Whether your method is subtle, direct or humorous, find some way to get the information across if you want a safe and stress-free goodnight smooch.

© Anton Gvozdikov/123RF.com

© Anton Gvozdikov/123RF.com

Have Fun

Don’t let allergies steal the spotlight. “Although a severe food allergy can be a life or death situation, you can’t let the entire evening revolve around it,” says Beasley. Remember to focus on the purpose of the date—to have fun getting to know someone.

With the right allergy management skills, you can enjoy the fun and spontaneity of a date, even when there’s food involved, agrees Miller. “If you understand your diagnosis, you take it seriously, you have your medication on you and you know what to do in an emergency, then you can be flexible about the details and go with the flow,” she says.

If you’re well prepared, you can get back to worrying about all those other aspects of a date, such as your outfit, your hair or whether a goodnight kiss is on the menu.

“Food allergies make some things challenging but dating is challenging anyway,” says Beasley. “Learning to manage your allergies and seeing how others respond to them is just one more part of getting to know one another. It’s just another strange, quirky, sometimes frustrating, sometimes funny, part of life.”

Joshua Feblowitz, who has severe milk and nut allergies, is a freelance writer and a student at Harvard University Medical School.

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