Allergy? Or avoidance? We’ve become a nation of picky eaters. Liza Finlay finds out why

Allergy? Or avoidance? We’ve become a nation of picky eaters. Liza Finlay finds out why

It’s girls’ night and you and your BFFs have scored a table at the trendiest new bistro in town. One by one, you order—but not à la carte, of course. You take turns rhyming off a litany of menu substitutions and alterations to the waiter: you won’t eat wheat, your friend refuses dairy and another is avoiding carbs.

For Vancouver’s Jaye Riske, ordering food off of any menu is always an ordeal—she can’t eat gluten or dairy. Navigating a dinner menu isn’t so much an exercise in selectivity as it is survival. Riske has food allergies, so making her way through a meal is like picking her way through a minefield. A misstep could end explosively. “I’ve become one of those women who grills the waiter,” she says ruefully.

These days, it’s impossible to go anywhere without meeting someone who has an issue with something on the menu. We’ve become a nation of choosy eaters. But the real question is: are our food obsessions sheer fussiness or have food allergies become endemic, this generation’s own brand of eating disorder?

For Riske, food avoidance isn’t some convenient diet trick; for her, certain foods are poison. Riske was diagnosed a decade ago after a series of blood and scratch tests (a common test where the doctor puts drops of fluid on your forearm containing allergen proteins to see if your skin reacts) revealed her allergies. While not anaphylactic, Riske will develop skin rashes, nausea and cramping within moments of ingesting either gluten or dairy. Since then, she’s learned how to grocery shop and, yes, how to grill a waiter.

But it isn’t just gluten and dairy that give the slender 39-year-old pain. It’s also the disapproving sniffs she gets from other women. “People just don’t believe me. One woman told me I had made up my allergies and that I had serious emotional issues.”

Sure, maybe there are some women who handily hide their disordered eating behind food allergies, but Riske is not one of them. What Riske has is not an emotional issue but, rather, a health issue. And she’s not alone. Health Canada estimates that 3–4 percent of Canadian adults suffer from food allergies, but Hamilton-based AllerGen (Allergy, Genes and Environment Network) puts that number much higher. According to this national research network, as much as seven percent of the adult population in Canada has a food allergy, and some experts are calling food aversions an epidemic.

Janet Neilson is one of those experts. A Toronto-based homeopath, she estimates that 80 percent of her clientele comes to her for help dealing with food allergies. “Over the past few years, more of the people walking through my door are looking for relief from digestive or intolerance issues,” she says.

Why? What’s changed? Theories abound. In fact, everything from stress to pollution has been blamed. In some camps, even global warming has been named a culprit. (The thinking goes that rising temperatures cause an increased circulation of pollens that set off an inflammatory response.) But scientists have zeroed in on a handful of hypotheses to explain this growing health phenomenon.

Hygiene is one of them—or, rather, hyper-hygiene. We’ve become a highly sanitized nation, pulling out antibacterial wipes and washes with alarming alacrity—and while that might be a boon for flu prevention, it creates a fertile ground for food allergies. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that, by protecting us from exposure to certain foods in infancy, our parents may have unwittingly impaired our body’s ability to develop a tolerance to certain foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, cow’s milk, eggs and shellfish (the five most common food allergies). By guarding against so-called danger foods, they may have added fuel to the food-allergy fire. “You need to eat something in order for the immune system to develop a tolerance for it. says Dr. Ben-Shoshan. There are studies showing it.”

Orthorexia versus allergies: the truth behind food obsessions

For millions of women, watching what they eat is a matter of survival; their food allergies and intolerances can cripple them physically. Others aren’t crippled physically but, rather, psychologically. Orthorexia is a fairly new classification of eating disorder characterized by an utter obsession for healthy eating. For the orthorexic, disavowing cheese, fat, meat and bread is a way to feel pure and healthy. But their fascination for food choices quickly becomes an unhealthy fixation. Diana Donald, a Toronto-based psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, is concerned that the prevalence of food allergies provides a handy excuse for women suffering from eating disorders. “Certainly, anorexics and orthorexics become adept at avoiding eating,” she says. “Controlling what they eat gives them a sense of self-worth. They come up with complex rules and regulations to govern every morsel.”

So how can you be sure your friend or loved one isn’t disguising her disordered eating with a food allergy? Ask yourself the following questions:

• How does she look? Those living with food allergies become adept at managing their diets so that their nutritional needs are met. Their health doesn’t necessarily suffer. Orthorexics, on the other hand, become so obsessed that malnutrition and even emaciation can result.
• Does her story change? Women with food intolerances have a finite list of items to avoid. Those with eating disorders will change their tune to fit the social situation; orthorexics will continually add to their list of restricted foods.
• Are there other symptoms? Sufferers of eating disorders often become compulsive about not only what they eat but also how they eat it (how the food is arranged on the plate, which utensils are used, where they sit). Food-allergy sufferers, on the other hand, are simply happy to be able to eat.

“The New Eating Disorder?” has been edited for; the complete story appears in the September 2009 issue of FLARE.