Pretend Allergies: Controlling the Environment

My friend Anna (not her real name, of course) was eating lunch with me in a restaurant. I ordered a salad, and she asked the waiter if the salad dressing contained nuts. He said it did, peanuts. Anna wrinkled her nose, still an incredibly cute look for her, and said she had a peanut allergy, and could he make sure that her salad had walnuts.

The waiter looked uncomfortable and said that he couldn’t guarantee the salad had never come in contact with nuts. Anna said that a restaurant needed to pay more attention to the medical needs of the customers, and ordered soup.

peanut in salon“I didn’t know you were allergic to peanuts,” I said.
“I don’t like them,” she said, “But the waiter won’t care about that, so I say I’m allergic.”
“Why would you say you are allergic to something you aren’t allergic to?”
Anna shrugged. “So he gets it. Otherwise I have to argue.”
While I ate my salad, I wondered about the client who claims to be allergic to perfume, and asks me not to wear any when I come to visit. Last week I forgot, but she didn’t say anything. In fact, she was wearing perfume. Angel. I am not a fan, but believe in letting people wear whatever perfume they want. Allergy or control freak?

How about my friend who says she is allergic to wheat? How can she eat pasta? I assumed it was spelt, but that doesn’t explain the hotdog on a bun I saw her munching while strolling down the street with her kids. Is this wheat allergy seasonal?

It seems that lately a lot of people I know have medical alerts–allergies and sensitivities. For a while I gave up having dinner parties because there was no meal I could cook that would satisfy all the allergies my friends have–chocolate, strawberries, nuts (ground AND tree), soy, milk, wheat, cheese–aged and new, corn, rice, and eggs. At one point I canceled a dinner party because I could not find enough food that would be OK’d by the vegan, the celiac, and the lactose intolerant who was also allergic to soy. (This sounds like the beginning of a great joke, doesn’t it, “a vegan, a celiac and a lactose intolerant walked into a bar.) In fact, liquor (non-wheat based) might have been the only thing I COULD serve. When I sent around the email canceling because the three menus I had would not please the whole group, I got back one suggestion that I cook all three, and label the dishes with their ingredients (umm, no.) and one retraction of a former allergy. The dinner was back on.

I would be a lot more concerned if I knew these allergies were real. Some of them seem to be control issues or simply a way to get attention and have other people take care of you. And how will I know the difference? And when will I stop caring?

Yes, some people have serious allergies. I once worked for a man who could have died from a single pignole. This isn’t about that. It’s about people who manipulate through fictional allergies for their own enjoyment or their need for attention. Do you think a pet would help? Unconditional love? Oh, you can’t have a pet? Oh, sure, allergies.

Image: http://www.slate.com

–Quinn McDonald is a writer with hay fever who is allergic to one of her cats, but not the other two. She is thinking of becoming a vegetarian. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

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27 responses to “Pretend Allergies: Controlling the Environment

  1. I am allergic to dogs, but ya don’t see me running around telling people who might have dog hair on them to leave my store or get away from me.

    I have ZERO tolerance for allergy fakers, especially this new breed of “scent allergies” these are just neurotic people who hate the smell of anything, and work themselves up into a frenzy over it. An almost sure way to get me to dump a bottle of cologne on me is to tell me you are “allergic” to it. I deal with a dog allergy, and I love dogs, you deal with your fake allergy and leave me alone.

    • I’m a perfumista, and read a huge amount on perfume development. Almost all the perfumes are now made out of molecules that don’t cause allergies. There is a big difference between not liking the way a perfume smells (I get that) and telling people you are “allergic.” It makes it hard for people who have real allergies.

  2. A child of a friend has only developed milk and gluten allergies recently. No health issues with it in 10 years. The mom has recently gone gluten free herself and has decided on her own that she is intolerant to it. Whatever. I believe in eating fewer carbs and less processed foods, so I don’t judge. But…
    While out with the kids she fusses over what’s NOT an option for her and her child. Always a production, more so if she’s indicated she simply wants a fancier meal than a zoo offers…But she goes with a hot dog at the zoo and ,”You have to make sure it doesn’t even touch a bun, so make new ones for us both…” Drives me crazy because I know about real gluten issues and what foods contain it. The hotdog probably has it, the mustard they both use definitely has it and the curly fries are coated with flour nowadays too! If she or her kid truly have an issue, she’d know these things! Later at my house, I made a pot roast with mash potatoes. She smothers both their potatoes in butter and a bottled gravy she picked at the store. Milk and gluten.
    For this mom, it is totally a control thing. She’s going through a divorce and trying to keep her youngest dependent on her for as long as possible.

    • This relates to many of the other comments here about the whole gluten/allergy topic. The lady at the zoo sounds like a real piece of work. The employees at the zoo will be ticked off, having to listen to that and deal with it. But what’s even worse, other people will hear it too. And it will make it MORE embarrassing for people who really have allergies. I’d just like to suggest: Don’t expect that all places are going to cater to you. Instead of telling people what you CAN’T have, look over the menu and select an item that they make that you can eat. Don’t trust your life to a stranger. If it really is life-threatening, better be safe and eat at home. And if it isn’t life-threatening, well we don’t want to hear about it. Sorry.

      • I agree with much of what you say, except for the very last sentence. Not wanting to hear about it unless it is life-threatening makes people ratchet up dislikes to the level of life-threatening. I think if we all back it down to “helpful” it will go away faster. My favorite restaurant substitutes “more veggies” for the rice I can’t eat, and voluntarily takes the corn starch out of my sauce. I leave bigger tips. Everyone is happy.

    • This has nothing to do with allergies, and that’s what’s sad. She will report to her doctor that her child has milk and gluten allergies, and it will wind up in the kid’s records. Probably no tests, because a vivid story makes it all true. It’s a truly sad person who needs attention and can’t get it from excellence or sharing ideas.

  3. I worked as a waiter in rather exclusive restaurants for many years. There were always “problem customers” who would come in and fuss about everything. But one of the ways we always knew it was fake, was that their complaints always followed certain trends. Years ago, I had many people tell me that they were allergic to cilantro, but that was only because they didn’t like it. Now the trend is to tell people that they are allergic to gluten, but these same people can be seen eating breads and other things that have gluten in them. What’s the solution? On “America’s Test Kitchen” they have developed things like bread, cookies, pies and cakes that are made without gluten, but then they will say that the breads won’t rise properly, the cookies won’t have the desired crispness, etc. There are so many things that are made with gluten that most people don’t realize it. In all my years as a waiter, I never heard of anyone dying due to a food allergy from the restaurants where I was working. But I heard from a lot of people who swore that they would. Like the boy that cried “wolf”–we don’t believe it anymore.

    • I don’t believe a lot of it, either. Unfortunately the few posers make it hard for people who really ARE allergic or diabetic or even have serious gluten problems. I quiz waiters about carbs in the food, which I always call “starch” or “sugar” I get a lot of fake answers, which puts me in danger of a too fast rise in blood sugar and then a drop, which is dangerous if I’m driving. I now eat out a lot less than I used to. It’s even more frustrating when I tell a waiter I’m diabetic and he brings me the “gluten-free” menu with potatoes and rice dishes–all of which I can’t eat. It’s not fun having a food-caused disease, and the pretenders and fad eaters aren’t doing anyone any favors.

      • I never meant to sound like I was dismissing everyone who had a complaint as being a fake or a liar. But it does make it more difficult for those with real allergies and real concerns. But what REALLY surprises me are those people who say that they have dangerous, possibly even fatal allergies, and they are willing to trust their safety to a total stranger. If I had serious allergies, I don’t think that I would eat out at all. I certainly wouldn’t trust my situation to a waiter that I might have pissed off by being rude and obnoxious! Something to think about. This is much more than the idea of a waiter who spits in the food. But a waiter who gets pissed off at you might do anything! Myself, I never spat in anyone’s food–but I saw it happen all the time.

        • You know, when you have a long-term disease, you give up a lot of fear for the brief feeling of a normal life. To be with friends. To not focus on your own imperfect body. And you are right, it’s not the people with the real allergies, its the others who make it so very hard for the rest of us.

  4. I served a dinner to my son and his new wife. At some point she announced that she was “allergic” to artificial sweeteners. I panicked and told my son – oh my god, I used no-cal jello in that salad! He (a doctor) said – don’t say anything(wink). Fast forward several years : dinner with same couple and their little boy. He tells me he is “allergic” to potatoes. In shocked surprise I said – you ARE? His mother says – You are not. why did you say that? From the mouths of babes: ’cause I just don’t like them.
    Kids catch on fast.
    It seems to me that everyone has something that “bothers” them and they choose to avoid or deal. But I do believe that some people really crave the fuss and attention that often comes with the “allergic” pronouncement, and some carry it to extremes. Like my niece, who has been “unwell” for most of her life. Started with perfumes, now it’s a full blown environmental allergy, and requires her to stay in her home, spending her days on one medication or another, and posting long commentaries on Facebook to keep her family tuned into her various complaints. She’s had a troubled past, including accusing her father of sexual contact, and I do believe all of this is related to a mental problem. Psychosomatic illnesses are very real to those who have them. Sad.

    • It’s almost impossible to tell what’s “real” and what isn’t. As you said, psychosomatic illnesses are very real to those who have them. Some people use “allergic” to mean “don’t like”, “won’t eat,” or “want to avoid.” On the other end of the spectrum are the thoughtless “fixers” who think diabetics are at fault for their disease and sneak sugar into dishes while saying the food isn’t sweetened. We have odd ideas about health, for sure. And odd ways to cope.

  5. Yes, People who fake allergies really do those with clinically proven allergies a dis-service. I guess my kiddo is one of the .1% of kids Eric P doubts exist who has a severe allergy. We’ve done intentional and accidental food challenges with peanut and eggs. With peanut consumption (after testing with a board certified allergist) he had trouble breathing, a blood pressure drop, vomiting and full body hives. That is a true Systemic (anaphylactic) reaction and I didn’t make it up. He required emergency intervention. We also did a food challenge at the dr’s office with egg to make sure it was a “real” allergy and again he had a reaction with medically verifiable symptoms. It is true that hives don’t cause anaphylaxis, but they can indicate the begining of a reaction that will head that way and it’s pretty dumb to sit around to see what will happen instead of treating a reaction at the onset. So don’t write off everyone who claims their kid has an allergy. Studies are helpful, but only examine a very small portion of the population.
    Thanks for the article, Q!

    • This article so obviously wasn’t written about anyone who has real allergies. Here’s a line from the article you might not have seen, “Yes, some people have serious allergies. I once worked for a man who could have died from a single pignole. This isn’t about that.”

      Real allergies are serious. No place in the article did I say everyone who claims to have an allergy can be written off. The article is specifically for people who make your life miserable–those whose drama needs are met by faking allergies to control others around them and get their way. I’m on your side in this issue.

      • I’m sorry my comment was mis-understood. I totally enjoyed the tongue in cheek humor and the point you were getting across in – stop faking allergies, everyone!
        I wasn’t trying to prove a point, just share an example of what a real allergy/reaction might look like – for those inclined to read the comment by Eric P and doubt allergies exist at all.

  6. sick of the fakes

    Sounds like my drama mama sister, all of a sudden she now has a wheat/gluten allergy. Funny how that was never picked up as a child when we all went through allergy testing. Her ecxema won’t go away, so she needs an excuse. She has also given all her children natural born and adopted different allergies/maladies. Oh does that pupmkin pie have peanuts? XXXX is allergic to peanuts, and that was after XXXX shared some pad thai noodles, that the parent knew I was eating. No sugar, wheat, dairy, citrus, tomatos due to allergies, yet they eat regular rice, ketchup, soy sauce, bbq sauce, salad dressing etc. I am so sick of all these people who jump on the bandwagon and need to feel special. Holidays are a pain, when they show up.

    • I think they are trying to control their environment because their lives feel out of control. And I always smile when I see the “absolutely no gluten” people eating processed foods that have gluten in them and not getting sick. It’s a complicated relationship, this thing about cooking.

  7. Four of five parents who swear they have peanut allergies, in fact have none. A Johns Hopkins study showed the remaining 1 out of 4 have mild allergies none which proved life threatening. Parents come on these blogs and believe their kids somehow will die for the want of a peanut. Hives rarely lead to anaphylaxis. Brown University did a study and found only 100 cases of anaphlyaxis per year actually were such. Doctors see hives and don’t want to be sued so they tell parents to avoid it at all costs, to cover themselves. To the parents above that posted their kids have allergies? There’s a 99.9% chance they don’t. But you won’t believe it, To you a single hive = death. This is almost never the case. Let the kid eat peanuts, get hives and itch. Over time the allergy, if it even exists will get better. Of cours they’ll now come on this blog and swear I’m wrong, even though I would be willing to bet you, you’re wrong. Keep babying your kids, the nation needs more whimpy kids.

    • Wow, that’s a lot of opinion. I agree that doctors act in ways that prevent lawsuits, and i do think a lot of parents are over-protective, particularly on moving from a sensitivity to a food to a life-threatening allergy. And, of course, there are fads in diseases–right now it’s gluten allergies. But I will also say I found your writing very confusing. “Their kids will die for want of a peanut” means that the kids must have peanuts to live. I don’t think that’s what you meant. “But you won’t believe it. To you a single hive=death” is something I never said and don’t believe.
      “I would be willing to be you, you’re wrong.” About what?

  8. I have a sister inlaw who is all about drama and makes it everyone’s problem that SHE has every allergy known (& uknown) to man. First she could only eat rice flour… Then it wore off and people got used to it so she felt she was no longer DIFFERENT AND SPECIAL, then she all of a sudden was allergic it rice products etc etc etc etc etc…… Years have gone by and she is literally allergic to EVERYTHING!!!! couldn’t have the ground turkey that I had prepared with a meal catered around her needs 100%. I wanted to show her that I am thoughtful and not as stupid as she treats me… Mainly to prove to everyone else that she is a drama queen…. And as I had predicted, BAM guess what, she is now allergic to turkey (not kidding!)…. Now get this….. I said , “well… I have you covered still sis… I made your favorite… Zucchini steamed without butter (dairy allergy don’tchya know) and fresh thyme. OMG! She is now allergic to zucchini and she wrinkled up her little nose at it in front of everyone at the table and ADDED, “oh… And even if it wasn’t zucchini I still couldn’t have it because I am allergic to thyme.” What the??? Whatever Miss Daytime Emmy!!! Can’t have food because you are allergic, can’t wear leather because you have a cow allergy, can’t enjoy the beach because you are allergic to the sun, salt, seashells, laughter, & water! Maybe it’s because you know that people will see your figure in a swim suit and KNOW you have been lying about food allergies for ALL THESE YEARS! You cannot eat ANYTHING YET YOU HAVE GAINED AND LOST WEIGHT NON STOP! where are you hiding the Twinkies sis??? It is NO SECRET… just simple math… You cannot eat a blade of wheatgrass a day for 18 years and still be as heavy/over weight as you are. Actually… You have literally told that you are allergic to wheatgrass too. By the way, your Berkenstocks are made of leather little Miss Fibby Fibber! STOP TRYING TO MAKE EVERYONE AROUND YOU FEEL SORRY FOR YOU!!!! None of us do! And by the way…. EVERYONE knows you are an attention hoarding drama queen… AKA a liar who doesn’t care that she hurts everyone around her with her unwarranted guilt trips. Grow up!

    • Wow, sounds like a lot of anger and need to control all the way around. I’m sorry for you both. It’s really sad when sisters are locked in a power struggle. I wish for both of you the path to understanding to work this out.

  9. foxhollowjewelry

    I have Celiac Sprue…which means no gluten or wheat. I have scar tissue from the lesions this causes…and it is worrisome that people fake these allergies…I would give anything to be able to eat what I wanted without having a inflammatory skin response that keeps me up at night and destroys the lining of my small intestine. But, the more research I see regarding wheat causing Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritus and other auto-immune disorders, the scarier the food situation seems.

    =====> I’m sorry that you must have to search for foods that don’t make you sick. My gratitude journal includes a line now how grateful I am that I can experience the taste, smell and texture of many foods. From my experience, many of the people who start by pretending they have allergies often convince themselves they do over time. -Q

  10. Poor kid! To have a mom so controlling that she’ll let the kid have the cupcake, but no frosting. Everyone knows that frosting is a major kids’ food group!

  11. I also have a child with a peanut allergy and it bothers me to no end when I hear of other folks who claim to have a food allergy and in the end just don’t ‘like’ the offending food. Or the mother in my daughter’s daycare who swears up and down that her child has a milk allergy so he can only ‘eat the cupcake, but not the frosting’ – uh hello? What cupcake doesn’t have milk in it?

    Ultimately, if a food gives you gas it’s not an allergy, its an intolerance.

    ====> That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m running into. It’s almost as if mental laziness meets medical ignorance and the result is some sort of odd manipulation and entitlement.

  12. I think the pretend allergy people are on a spectrum with people who are just plain food facists–you know, they pick a particular eating strategy out of choice (not medical necessity or deep spiritual concern) and impose it on everyone else they dine with. If they eat low-carb, everyone within yelling distance must eat low-carb. If they are vegetarians, then plant protein is the order of the day for all. And so on.

    I’m wondering if they get any sensual pleasure out of the food they *do* eat, or have any fun with cooking. I’d wager not much.

    The commenter with the child with true allergies is right–it probably makes people more hesitant to believe in the existence of serious, potentially fatal, allergies. That’s a shame.

    –Liz :)

    ====> That’s a really interesting point you’ve made. If you don’t enjoy food, or are even scared it, then it’s pretty easy to use as a weapon to manipulate or judge others. -Q

  13. As the parent of a child who is severely allergic to peanuts and lentils, I find it appalling that people would fake food allergies. It’s not a matter of preference or control. And I hate to think of the harm they might be doing if they go around telling people they’re allergic to X food and still eat things that might have come in contact with that food.

    I love the scary peanut graphic! My daughter will get a kick out of it.

    ===>What scares me most is that after a few months of declaring their “allergies” these people begin to BELIEVE they have allergies. Then the matter escalates–their friends know it’s not real and deliberately sneak the product in their menu to prove them wrong. The person with the “allergy” becomes angry and tries to make their friend wrong, and the friend winds up thinking that everyone with an allergy needs to be proven wrong. It’s complicated and mean all the way around. The peanut graphic is from Slate, but I love it! -Q

  14. I have no food allergies, real or imagined. I would be honored to come to one of your dinner parties. Just give me a week to drive out there. Want me to pick up Kent on my way?

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