Food allergies are scary. Food is supposed to be nourishment and a source of joy and even companionship when you eat with those you love. It’s personal. When someone has a preference, intolerance or allergy and can no longer take part in community eating, it can divide people. That special salad grandma just loves to make is now off limits and she may feel a direct insult that her “love” has been rejected.

Those who choose to follow a special diet insult the food allergy community by insisting to the wait staff that they are “allergic” to something they are avoiding. Waitstaff makes assumptions and is only corrected when they prepare the food with no ramifications for an “avoider” and then subsequently send someone with a true anaphylactic response to the hospital.

A mom goes to her child’s school to celebrate her birthday with an armload of cupcakes, but one child refuses and says he has to bring a special one from home. Maybe the teacher says all the food in the classroom must be nut free or dairy free. Now mom dubs the child “special cupcake” because this child is difficult and is preventing her child’s birthday fun. Who is this kid to stop other kids from being kids just because HE has a problem? “It’s not OUR problem,” she thinks.

Food is personal. There are many psychological disorders that manifest themselves in over or under consumption of food and entire holidays based on foods. A scan of the number of restaurants in your town proves how wrapped up in food we are as a community.

Do you know what else is important in community? People. People who stare death in the face each time they eat food that they didn’t safely prepare themselves. People who are scared, sad, ostracized for a true medical condition they cannot control. But that may be changing…

Oral immunotherapy is not a new concept but it is relatively new to allergists in private practice. OIT is the oral desensitization of an allergen over time by ingesting small amounts of the allergenic food and gradually increasing that dose and therefore tolerance to provide a level of safety for the person with a food allergy.

Two years ago my family thought we would live under the shadow a life-threatening peanut allergy had placed on my son forever. He was allergic to touching things with invisible peanut residue. He went into anaphylaxis to a sandwich at a restaurant due to cross contamination. He was living in fear and only ate what I approved. The future was so uncertain to him that he never dreamed of what he would be when he grew up and made no plan to ever be an adult or move out because that meant leaving me, his lifeline.

Today, my son wants to play football and own a truck. He may want to design video games, work at Game Stop or be an engineer. He is dreaming of his future and no longer in fear for his life. Parties are fun and no foods are off limits. The difference is that 20 months ago I moved the kids and dog up to Utah while my husband stayed in Arizona and worked, so that our son could undergo desensitization. One year and two months ago, he “graduated” by eating the equivalent of 24 peanuts at once. He still takes a daily dose of peanuts in the morning and sometimes more at night, and he may be doing this for years more…or even a lifetime…but it’s been worth it. He is safe and happy. His personality has changed as his confidence has grown. Best of all, he has a heart for kids with allergies or disabilities. There’s a compassion within him that most adults can’t grasp. We’ve come out on the other side and we are better off for the struggles before.

Unfortunately the number of individuals with food allergies only continues to grow. I have my theories as to why that is and if I’m correct, the 1 in 13 with food allergies will become even more prevalent soon. People are always going to need to eat and want to eat.

We intrinsically want to connect with others through food. How are we going to help this large and growing group stay connected and not be ostracized for an autoimmune condition they didn’t ask for? We show compassion. We share the word that oral immunotherapy is here and it works.

And we love…we love people despite what they can and cannot eat, what they can and cannot do. Love is unconditional. As my mentor Robyn O’Brien says, “Love is a rocket fuel.”

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