I’ve talked previously about how best to describe my son’s peanut allergy in conversation, so other people understand the severity. I’ve fallen into the habit of saying he is “severely allergic”, for fear that saying “allergic” might make the listener think “hmm, yeah, isn’t everybody these days” and saying “anaphylactic” might not be understood.
In recent months, I have read on several occasions that there is no such thing as a “mild” allergy: as any allergy has the potential to result in a severe allergic reaction. You can’t predict with absolute certainty whether an allergic person will have a mild or severe reaction on coming into contact with their allergen. They might have hives on one occasion, but anaphylaxis on another. So I am probably undermining the term “allergic” by qualifying it with the word “severely”. Simply saying “allergic” SHOULD be enough.
… and the allergy pretenders
Then I heard a story that left me somewhat aggravated and which also made me realise there is a need to spell out to people that, not only is my son’s allergy severe, it is also very “real”.
A friend of a friend said he had an allergy to chillies. One evening, whilst at a rugby club social, my friend realised a spicy dish had been taken to the “allergic” man’s table by mistake. She panicked, rushed over to warn him … only to be met with a mumbled “erm, I think this will probably be alright” and then to see him continue eating it. Turns out, he was pretending to have an allergy, to make sure people didn’t serve him chilli-laden food.
I’ve also heard talk of people feigning allergies or intolerances to certain foods, so they don’t have to confess to counting their calories. Obviously, this all takes a far more worrying turn if someone is claiming an allergy to mask an eating disorder, and I am in no way qualified to pass comment on that. However, the woman who goes out for a meal with friends and, to save face when ordering a salad, pretends to have an intolerance? Unnecessary, unhelpful, and for goodness sake, how unassertive?
It would appear faux food allergies have been in vogue for some years, with the Washington City Paper reporting on the trend back in 2008. The article quotes restaurant owner Jeff Black, who says of the “ingredient-averse” who feign an allergy:
“When people fake disease, it’s just like people who fake to get handicap plates… It’s ethically and morally wrong.”
Absolutely. So, why do diners do it? Is it an expression of control freakery where they otherwise don’t trust a restaurant to make a meal to their taste (or within their budgeted calorie allowance?). Is it a form of attention seeking, so that they are fussed over by the restaurant or receive sympathy from friends? Or is it simply a cowardly way of ensuring you get the meal you want, and these people haven’t realised the disservice they are doing to real allergic diners?
The problem of pretend allergies may even be rife amongst school children. It seems some parents are not above claiming that their child “can’t eat” something, when the truth is they “won’t eat” a certain food. During my recent spate of primary school tours (sussing out which were allergy savvy before my son starts this September), one headmaster stressed to me the need for a doctor’s letter confirming that D had a diagnosed allergy. Apparently, this proof is required so the school can differentiate the children with genuine dietary requirements from those who are merely picky eaters.
“Make sure that dietary needs are backed up with a medical certificate or letter from the doctor, so you ensure you are only altering your catering for those who are medically certified – or those who have special diets for religious or cultural reasons.”
I find the whole notion of pretend allergies quite incredible. It may seem like a harmless white lie, but the more allergy pretenders there are, the more catering establishments and the general public will be cynical about the claims of those with real allergies. So… men who can’t handle hot food, dieting ladies and pandering parents, please think twice before turning allergy pretender. It really doesn’t help those with the real medical condition.
The Allergy UK site contains information on an allergic person’s chance of having anaphylaxis. It states this is:
“a little more likely in someone who has:
- had a previous anaphylactic reaction
- moderate-severe asthma
- underlying cardiovascular disease”
Factors such as “exercise, heat, alcohol, the amount of allergen taken, and, for food, how it is prepared and consumed” can also influence the severity of the reaction. (For full details, see Allergy UK, Anaphylaxis and Severe Allergic Reactions).
- Washington City Paper, Breaking Out in Chives (Picky diners beware: Your serve is on to the whole fake-allergy thing.) by Ruth Samuelson (7 November 2008).
- Cosmopolitan, Are Food Allergies the New Eating Disorders? by Jessica Girdwain (23 January 2014). (Get past the headline and this is an interesting article on how some people feign a food allergy or intolerance to mask an eating disorder).