Gaining multiple allergies at the age of 14 did a lot to knock my confidence at a time when I should have been building it, I have always been quite sociable and have found making friends easy, but once my diet had become incredibly restricted and largely unmanageable – due to how sensitive my body had become – I began to feel quite isolated. I was struggling to maintain a positive attendance rate at school which left me feeling like I was missing out not just on my education, but also on socialising with my school friends. Thankfully I have always been very independent and worked hard on maintaining my education which meant I left high-school with really good GCSE’s, resulting in me having to start all over again in college. It’s difficult to cement friendships in an environment I cannot always attend, whether that be due to illness or the constant hospital appointments, again I felt very isolated and although I have a really good friendship group I would worry constantly when I was ill in my first year that I would somehow end up excluded from the group due to my absence. I was wrong to worry however, as I made some wonderful friends that have remained with me.
Socialising with allergies in itself is quite difficult, as going out requires a lot of research. Going out for food with friends isn’t as easy as just putting on a nice outfit and leaving the door, restaurants and their menus have to be extensively researched and compared with others in the surrounding area so the best option can be found. When I was younger this would make me feel particularly awkward, and sometimes still does, when in a friendship group you’re the only one with dietary requirements (and they’re quite broad), I can wrongly feel like a bit of a burden to those I’m going for a meal with. Due to the amount of research it can take to find somewhere to eat it can be easy to just get into the habit of visiting the same eateries, but recently I’ve been making an active effort to visit new places, not only so I can feel more confident eating out but also to make going out for food a bit more interesting, especially as I do actually enjoy visiting new places and trying new food. Going out for drinks is similar, the alcohol menu for cocktail bars has to be researched along the way or at the table before ordering. As I have both a potato and a gluten allergy, vodka is the alcohol that is particularly awkward for this and I generally have to ask the person behind the bar about the alcohols if the menu isn’t very detailed.
Going on mini-breaks away or holidays is also something that can appear quite daunting. Over the summer I went to Edinburgh and although I did a lot of research as to where I could eat before I got there, the first night did feel a little challenging when it came to actually deciding where was best for me to eat. However, once I’d realised how easy it was to talk to the servers in the restaurants, cafe’s and bars I found myself feeling a lot more at ease when it came to going out for food.
The idea of asking those working in a bar, restaurant or cafe about the ingredients in the food they serve used to scare me and still does sometimes put me on edge. I do know however that it’s much better to prioritise my health and ask as many questions as I need to, rather than risking eating a meal I’m not entirely sure is safe for me. As a young person though the pressures of socialising with new people or in new environments, such as in University, can result in risk being taken as a means of trying to fit in. I find it particularly awkward to have to run through my allergies with new people I meet every time, as although its nice that people generally find it interesting, it’s a very repetitive conversation for me that tends to put me under the spotlight…
This lack of confidence in young people relating to their allergies was noted by the Food Standards Agency who have launched a campaign entitled “easy to ASK”, which aims to empower young people to ask food businesses about the food and drinks they serve to ensure they make safe choices. This campaign and the survey taken by the FSA in partnership with AllergyUK and the Anaphylaxis Campaign, is also an important reminder to businesses to ask customers about any potential dietary requirements and to keep their allergen information easily accessible and up to date. This campaign’s importance has been particularly highlighted by the recent mass news coverage of allergens and the awful consequences that negligence in regards to allergens can have. Only 14% of those asked in the survey reported feeling extremely confident when asking for allergen information when dining out, and although over the years my confidence has grown, I admire those that responded to the survey with such confidence and appreciate the efforts of the Food Standards Agency to improve the confidence of young people suffering with allergies or intolerances as a whole.
It’s important to prioritise your health at all times anyway, but as someone with allergies it’s important to ensure you are never left feeling uneasy or in the dark about what you’re eating. If at any time you feel like the food you are going to eat isn’t completely safe it is always much better to ask, whether that be asking for an allergen menu as you walk into the restaurant or checking again with a member of staff before you eat your meal that your food is definitely safe for you and your allergy/s. Gaining my allergies at what appears to be a slightly surprising age to most people was a strange thing to adapt to, I’d lived a whole 14 years being able to eat whatever I wanted to and suddenly I found that I had to be extra careful about what I ingested. Going through school, college and now University with my allergies and taking a pack lunch with me wherever I go, I know that when I want to socialise and go out for food with friends or on a night out, it is always easy to ask those serving me about the ingredients in their products.