When we think of the holidays it brings to mind the wonderful smells and tastes that go along with the festivities. Whether it is the aroma of turkey and stuffing, the warm spices of a mouthwatering apple pie, the buttery goodness of sugar cookies or the savory scent of potato latkes we all long for the traditional treats associated with the holidays. So what happens when you find out that you have sensitivities or allergies that may curtail your favorite holiday indulgence? Should you (or your child) be stuck skipping all of your favorites? While I would not recommend eating foods that are problematic, there are many strategies to help get through the holiday season.
The holidays are about sharing. Whether it is a glass of wine, a meal, a treat, a present or even just good conversation the holidays are about connections with friends and family. This can make it so hard for those who have food allergies and sensitivities because it limits how much they may be able to enjoy. Even more difficult is that the host or hostess is often troubled by the guest who cannot eat the meal. Regardless of which foods you are avoiding, here are a few tips to navigating holiday fare with food allergies and sensitivities.
1. If you are allergic ALWAYS ask before you eat.
While food sensitivities certainly can make us unwell, they are not nearly as dangerous as a true food allergy. This hypersensitivity immune reaction is mediated by IgE antibodies. Once present, the immune response will become stronger and stronger. Symptoms may initially be mild including a tingling or burning in the mouth, hives and congestion. Subsequent exposures can trigger anaphylaxis, a life threatening reaction where swelling of the tongue and throat can make it impossible to breathe. These reactions must be dealt with immediately with use of an Epi pen and followed with attention by an emergency room physician. For this reason, it is imperative to always ask before you eat. Even if you think something does not have an allergen in it, it may have been cross-contaminated. Since allergies can be life threatening, it’s better to skip the apple pie, than to discover the hard way that there are walnuts that you are allergic to in the filling.
2. When attending a party or other holiday event, bring a dish that you can eat.
While this may seem a bit simplistic, bringing food to share with others can really make things easier for everyone. Make sure it is a dish that you can fill up on in case there are few things for you to eat at the event. While it may seem easier to just bring enough for you, part of enjoying food is sharing it with others. By bringing enough to share, you also get to share your meal. For example, you might bring mashed sweet potatoes made with orange or lime juice if you are avoiding dairy. Not only might this provide you with a safe side dish, it also is an interesting alternative to the traditional mashed potatoes. Spiced nuts make an excellent gluten and dairy free addition to any dessert table. They are enjoyed by many, are easy to make and may mean that you get to eat dessert with everyone else.
3. Never criticize another’s food.
While this should go without saying, never criticize another’s food. Don’t make a fuss if things don’t go as smoothly as planned. After all, it is about the relationships more than the holiday dinner. When in doubt have a snack ready in your purse or car. Also, be careful if someone else is planning to indulge in a food that they know they are sensitive to. This is their choice. It is one thing if they aren’t aware that it includes the ingredient, but if the once gluten free individual is about to have a large piece of cake chances are they know it’s not gluten free. Different people have different levels of reactions. IgG antibodies are created when we have food sensitivities. The more we are exposed to a particular food, the more antibodies we create. However, if you avoid the food for about 6 months all of the antibodies should disappear. This means if you try to eat the food again, then it may be okay. There are times when this is not the case since other immune reactions could be present such as Celiac disease; an autoimmune reaction to gluten. However, often times we can regain foods. Further, depending on the level of sensitivity, some may be able to eat a food to which they are sensitive on occasion with minimal effect.
4. Have a snack (or even a meal!).
If you are going to a larger gathering where you have little control over the food, it may be helpful to try and eat a large snack or even a meal prior to the event. This way even if there are few safe options you are not starving and miserable. You might find a few things to nibble on, but a full meal may not be possible depending on which and how many foods you are avoiding. Concentrate on spending time with others and less on the food that you are missing. Again, perhaps you bring a snack with you when attending longer events. People are generally most uncomfortable when you are not eating. However, most of the time you can go unnoticed if you are happily enjoying the party even if you are not partaking in much (if any) of the food and drink.
5. Call ahead.
If you are attending a holiday party or gathering call ahead to see what will be on the menu. This can help you plan what you need to bring. If it is a close friend or family member this is the perfect time to ask if you can bring a favorite dish to share. If the event is at a restaurant, you can ask for a meal that is safe to eat. Most restaurants are happy to accommodate and often have a gluten and/or dairy free option available. This is true with catered events as well. You will be surprised how easy it is if you simply ask ahead of time.
The holidays should be a time of joy, sharing and caring. I know for those like myself with food allergies and sensitivities it can be a challenging time of year. However, a bit of planning before each can go a long way in helping you enjoy this time of year safely. Focus on all of the wonderful things that you can enjoy during the holidays: the beautifully colored fall leaves, the first snowfall, the brightly lit Christmas tree, and the soft glow of the Hanukkah menorah. Food is an important part of life, but the loss of one or two foods should never impact your ability to celebrate the holiday season with your friends and family.
Jessica Pizano is the owner of Fit to You, LLC, which offers clinical nutrition and nutrigenomic counseling, as well as personalized training programs. Her concentrations include genetics and nutrigenomics, general health and fitness, weight loss, food allergies/sensitivities, autoimmune disease, obesity intervention, and Pilates. She earned a master’s degree in human nutrition at the University of Bridgeport. She is a certified nutrition specialist through the Board for Certified Nutrition Specialists. She is continuing her studies at Maryland University of Integrative Health where she is pursuing a doctor of clinical nutrition and is also an adjunct faculty member teaching nutritional genomics. Currently, Jessica practices nutrition counseling, nutrigenomics, and personal training in her studio in Avon. She may be contacted at (860) 321-7234 or online at: www.fittoyouct.com.