Scared to Eat: Conquering Anxiety Around Food Allergies

People gather around a table of food at an office party.Eating brings pleasure, energy, and well-being to our lives. A disruption of this simple, often mindless, but important activity could lead to stress and anxiety.

People who have food allergies have to be extra careful about what they eat. A simple ingredient such as eggs or nuts could ruin a meal by causing hives or wheezing, and, in extreme cases, cause a reaction so severe that an epinephrine injection is needed to save the person from a life-threatening condition.

Food intolerances, or adverse reactions to specific foods, can also cause harm to a person, but generally lead to minor symptoms such as diarrhea or stomach cramps, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information website. Celiac disease, for example, is not a food allergy but rather an autoimmune issue. People with celiac disease who eat gluten experience health problems as a result.

Elika Kormeili, a therapist specializing in food-allergy issues and founder of the Center for Healthy and Happy Living, says that she has suffered from food allergies and knows the stress and anxiety they can cause. She says certain social situations that involve food, such as birthday celebrations or work lunches, can be so stressful that people with food allergies might avoid them entirely.

“Sometimes children with severe food allergies (life-threatening) are so scared of being exposed to an allergen that it impacts their ability to participate at school,” Kormeili said. She goes on to say that “Food is a huge part of our socialization and when you are limited in what you can eat, it definitely causes anxiety.”

Food allergies may lead to anxiety, but anxiety may or may not lead to issues with food allergies. Kormeili said stress and anxiety can weaken the immune system to the point of aggravating food allergies. People with food allergies might also experience changes in mood and behavior. Sometimes just getting on a diet to eliminate allergens improves mood, decreases irritability, and allows for better concentration.

She has the following tips for coping with food allergies and the anxiety that sometimes follows:

  • Make a list or keep track of the foods you are allergic to and make sure to remove them from your kitchen cabinets. Add foods that your body accepts.
  • Develop steps to maintain good mental and emotional health, not just physical health. Mental and emotional self-care can involve relaxation and breathing techniques.
  • Strengthen and maintain a healthy support group. You can interact with others in person or via social media.
  • Ask for and accept help with your situation. Seeing a health professional or therapist is an option.
  • Have a plan for emergency situations involving food allergies. If reactions to certain foods are severe, it may be necessary to carry an EpiPen—talk to your doctor about this—and create an action plan with specific steps. Alert others about what to do in such situations.
  • Understand that despite prevention efforts, you still could be exposed to an allergen. Don’t let that keep you from living a happy, full, and healthy life.

Stacey Antine, a registered dietician and author of Appetite for Life: The Thumbs-Up, No-Yucks Guide to Getting Your Kid to Be a Great Eater, says that the most important part of alleviating anxiety associated with food allergies is having direct control over the food you’re eating. She encourages growing, harvesting, and cooking your own food. She is the founder of HealthBarn USA, which hosts workshops and other programs on a family farm to help kids and adults understand the importance of natural, healthy food.

She suggests cooking your own food, talking to servers at restaurants to get more information about the preparation and ingredients included in foods, carrying safe snacks to eat just in case, and informing others of your diet restrictions in advance so they can accommodate you. “Cook your own food and rely less on packaged foods. It’s better for your overall health…Also, yoga and at least 20 minutes of meditation daily will help reduce anxiety,” Antine said.

Laurinda Kwan, a naturopathic physician at Arizona Natural Health Care, says that she decided to focus on treating seasonal, environmental, and food allergies because of her own suffering from food allergies and eczema. “If you repeatedly have adverse reactions to your food, just like Pavlov’s dogs, you develop a learned response,” says Kwan. She goes on to say, “We are not born having anxiety to foods. However, over time, if eating food consistently produces unfavorable feedback (e.g., hives, itching, stomach pain), your learned response is going to be that of fear or anxiety to foods.”

She believes that in some cases anxiety itself could create food-intolerance issues. For example, when a person experiences anxiety, sometimes he or she also has gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. “If the gastrointestinal tract is compromised, this could lead to intestinal permeability (or ‘leaky gut syndrome’). When the intestinal lining is compromised, substances pass through the lining of the small intestine that normally should not pass into the blood stream, and your body creates an immune response,” Kwan said. She said to keep in mind that there is some debate about leaky gut syndrome, and more information needs to be gathered.

Kwan’s suggestions for alleviating anxiety associated with food allergies include talking to a homeopathic doctor who can treat the whole person, not just immediate physical symptoms. She also said it’s necessary to pay attention to food labels to avoid allergens.

Anxiety is not the only mental health issue associated with food allergies. Kwan said depression could develop as a result of living a restricted lifestyle. Also, because people with food allergies have a tendency to focus on what they do or don’t eat, in some cases eating disorders can develop.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • april

    November 7th, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    My friend has a son who has peanut allergies and it is almost impossible for them to even go out for dinner or a treat because you never know how all of the food has been prepared or if the waitstaff has been fully prepared for patrons who have allergies such as this. On a bright note she found out very early on that he had these allergies, but I can’t imagine being daunted with all sorts of problems for so long and really having no idea what was causing them. It also makes it kind of hard or the rest of us with kids who can eat pretty much anything and have to worry about what he might accidentally pick up if he is at our house.

  • Ana

    May 25th, 2016 at 9:01 PM

    Hi, I’m Ana and I have been severely allergic to dairy all my life. Up until I was 15 (more or less) my allergic response when I ate something with dairy would easily go away with 2 tsp of Benadryl in most cases. As soon as I ate something with dairy I would immediately feel my throat itch and I would drink liquid Benadryl for it to go away. At around 15, my allergy progressed especially when I ate food that had cheese. It would no longer stop with Benadryl and I had to inject myself with my epipen and immediately go to the hospital. The fist time I actually had to go to the hospital because of Anaphylactic shock, forever changed the way I viewed my allergic. I never truly understood just how deadly it could be. Months after that traumatising incident, I visited with my family the restaurant where I got my first anaphylactic reaction and just reliving those moments made my heart accelerate and I felt I could no longer breathe. That was when my panic attacks started. It got to the point where I would be terrified of eating anything I wasn’t 100% sure it could not have dairy. Unfortunately around that same time I started college and the panic attacks generalised and affected me when I took tests. I went to a psychologist and I no longer get panic attacks when I take tests. Two years have passed (now I’m 20) and every time I eat at a restaurant (no matter how well I explain to the waiter my condition) I just eat one or two bites of the food. Then I wait from 5 to 10 minutes to make sure it doesn’t have dairy. All of this has made eating outside of my home exhausting and unpleasant. I usually cannot try any dish that I would really like to have. It has gotten to a point where I no longer enjoy eating outside of my home. I prefer to eat something that I made myself vs not being sure if what I am being given has dairy. When I have social activities I just eat a lot before going to the activities. I never expect them to have food I can actually eat. Now the only anxiety I get is when I am waiting to see if the bite I just took is giving me allergy and fortunately as time has passed I have learned to control it. I think the hardest part of living with a food allergy is accepting that your life is going to be different. So much of the social activities in our culture require eating, that you may feel like you’re missing out. But what matters is that you accept your allergy and learn to be at peace with it. I constantly tell myself, “I love my allergy because it is as much a part of me as the best things within me”. This has really helped me to get out of the “why me?” stage and helped me transition into a “there is more to life than eating stage”. I have to admit that this was all very difficult since I have loved eating all my life. I hope this helps any of you that are going through the same condition. Please comment if you have any questions.

  • nikki

    July 8th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    thank you so much for posting this. I’m 15 right now and severely allergic to eggs. like you, my reaction used to simply be nausea followed by vomiting, but recently I had my first anaphylactic shock and had to administer my epi pen. since then, my already bad food anxiety has gotten a lot worse, to the point where even my favorite foods that I have eaten before are causing panic attacks. reading your story helped me a lot to feel less alone, and provide hope that I will not always have to be so scared of what I eat :)

  • Alan

    November 7th, 2012 at 1:23 PM

    I cannot stand the foods that I dislike. I can only imagine how it would be to have certain foods off limit for yourself. This could get tricky when eating out or visiting someone. And social occasions could push this further. I would hate to be that guy with the special requests and requirements about his food though.

  • Tam L

    November 1st, 2016 at 12:04 PM

    According to my allergist, generally he things we love the most are what we are most sensitive too. Ive always loved all kinds of food and now have allergies & sensitivities to grains…wheat especially, soy, corn, milk, cane sugar, egg yolks, molds, grasses, trees, and a host of other things. It affects my brain…my joints, muscles, thinking, functioning…basically every aspect of my life. I currantly cannot control my eating with all this and am looking to detox and heal my gut instead. I have no life…people think im faking…and ive lost everything.

  • lange

    November 7th, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    But how does this work with kids? Obviously they can’t talk to someone about a homeopathic solution, although I guess the parents could.

  • Gerrald

    November 7th, 2012 at 11:22 PM

    I guess it can be tough for someone with such an allergy. Because food as always remains one of the most common things people do in a group. And to have your allergies and problems brought out to other people would never be a pleasant experience.

    I wouldn’t mind my family and close friends but looking for specifics when I’m out eating and everywhere I go would have been too hard for me.

  • Lane R

    November 8th, 2012 at 4:06 AM

    Is there any news as to why so many people have allergies now that never used to be seen?

  • Joyce M

    January 30th, 2014 at 7:31 AM

    I use to react with rashes and mouth sores and swollen lips to foods. I discovered why! I have Hashimoto Thyroiditis. It didn’t always show up in tests. I went for blood work as soon as I reacted and was feeling awful. I was also not taking enough vitamins. I went to my doctor and got a blood test for a vitamins. I was very vitamin D deficient. I take 5000 mg of D and my food reactions to most, not all, got much better. I can’t stress how important it is to get a vitamin test, and see a highly rated endocrinologist. It has changed my life!

  • ricky

    November 8th, 2012 at 4:11 AM

    never easy to ensure you do not consume a particular ingredient.although this can be circumvented when you cook your own food,it can be tough when eating out,and especially so if the food that you have an allergy to is a common ingredient.I am a complete foodie and would have had a very tough time if I had such an allergy against something that is a part of many foods out there.

  • Blake

    November 9th, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    all i can say is keep an epi pen handy if you are that allergic because a restaurant may assure you of one thing but then you could get your food and it could be something different altogether

    not the best situation to be in if you are someone who suffers with severe food allergies

  • Elika Kormeili, MFT

    November 9th, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    Great article! Yes, it can be difficult to socialize with food allergies (dating gets a little tricky) but not impossible, there are ways to be discrete. I try to work with my clients to always be prepared, Epi-pens and all. If you need any support coping with your food allergies, please feel free to contact me!

  • Laura

    January 30th, 2013 at 7:20 PM

    My biggest struggle is that I cannot pinpoint the specific foods I am sensitive to. They are like a moving target. I also have environmental allergies. I am realizing more and more how much my insidious stressors are affecting my digestion and reactivity to foods.

  • Elika Kormeili

    February 2nd, 2013 at 8:17 AM

    Hi Laura,
    It can be frustrating when you don’t know what foods are problematic for you. Have you been tested for food sensitivities? If you would like more info feel free to contact me

  • Andy

    July 20th, 2013 at 3:20 PM

    I had something I was allergic to in march from cross cooking. I had order vegtable lo mein and had a shellfish allergy. Ever since then I’m absolutely terrified of like all food. I eat the same three things a day. How do I get over this?

  • Erica Erkins

    February 4th, 2014 at 6:40 AM

    Hi, I have rheumatoid arthritis and while my arthritis doesn’t feel any worse, my overall immunity is terrible now. I have gerd and am developing food allergies to cod and as of yesterday, almonds. Both times had to go to the ER. The 1st time, was administered iv benadryl and steroids, which exacerbated the gerd. Now, it’s breakfast time and I’m too scared to eat anything but water. I have benadryl and epi pens. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  • Nick

    May 26th, 2014 at 9:11 PM

    I’ve been scared Of other food for a very long time, just know it’s all in mind. The mind will automatically illusion the human body to believe in the reactions of a life threatening situation. If you believe in it of course. For example, I have eaten everything since I was I kid EXCEPT for seafood, which I was actually allergic too.

    I have been fine the last 16 years… I was four when I had the seafood allergy. So 20 years I am.. I recently have been in the hospital 6 times. I realized of them were anxiety…. Making me think I had an allergy….. It took so long to overcome. Just know your not alone… Allergies and anxiety are so close together. Recognize the difference. And contact me if you’re scared. All I want to do is help. I’ve been living a nightmare for so long. Finally overcame it with no support. I only wish to help some one else.

  • marilyn

    June 4th, 2014 at 8:10 AM

    Hi Nick,

    I actually got very emotinal reading your comment. I am dealing with the same situation you just explained now. It is horrible. I try so hard everyday to tell myself to remain calm but I just get so anxious and paranoid even after I eat food that I know im not allergic too as well have used an Epi pen when I probably shouldn’t have. It would be great to know how you overcame this.

  • Jasmine

    May 26th, 2015 at 6:58 AM

    Sir I believe I am experiencing your case at this point. I already had my nlood tested for igE and came out negative to any food allergy. I do have crustacean allergy since age of 9 and removing it from my diet however recently i stop eating nuts, chocolate and chicken for the thought that i will go to anaphylactic reaction. I over react when i eat food I am not familiar with and started to have a symptoms same like my food allergy. Please share what you did so that I can go back to my daily lifestyle. Thanks.

  • Marissa

    August 2nd, 2014 at 8:23 PM

    Hi, I have multiple food allergies to dairy, sesame, peanuts, and gluten as well as celiac disease. In the last month I have had 2 reactions to both sesame and peanuts. After both these reactions I find myself fearing food and going out to eat because I am absolutely terrified of being poisoned by people that don’t understand my circumstances. Lately I find myself almost in a panic after I take a bite of food thinking of all the scenarios that could have happened while I wasn’t watching and preparing myself for the absolute worst. My anxiety heightens especially when I eat spicy foods because it mimics the tingling reaction that I have when I eat sesame or peanuts. This anxiety is relatively in it’s early stage, but it’s been getting worse and I’m scared that it’s going to just continue to mess with me.

  • Lydia

    August 27th, 2014 at 10:00 AM

    My daughter suffers from so many anxieties and now panic attacks. I think she has developed generalized anxiety disorder because of the core issue of multiple allergies. We even tried to get her in to an inpatient facility to focus on the anxiety but they wouldn’t take her because they weren’t set up for her allergies!!! Does anyone know of a therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients with co-occuring anxieties and allergies/food fear issues? I have had no success finding ANYONE who can help us. I was even thinking of hiring someone who would be like our private doctor on salary so they could work with her all the time to resolve her fears, etc but I have no idea how to hire someone like that. I figure celebrities with their crazy kids probably hire people like that but what is the source?? Any advice would be welcome! My daughter is super smart in school but the rest of her life (and ours) is SEVERELY impacted in a negative way by her fears/allergies struggle.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    August 27th, 2014 at 11:31 AM

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  • Mae

    December 27th, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    First off, it is really nice reading all of the comments and knowing that I’m not the only one who has this. When I was young I had a reaction to Brazil nuts, and then after that when I was younger I would still eat everything without worrying, but I had another reaction about a year ago, and since then I have not stopped freaking out about it. Also, even with the fact of having a epi pen with me, I feel that I would still be super nervous because I wouldn’t want to use it.

  • Ashley

    July 14th, 2015 at 1:13 PM

    I have had an anaphylactic shock to dogs and shellfish. Evrytime I eat a meal that even I have prepared my brain manifests these symptoms of another reaction. I sit there forcing myself to continue eating while being terrified that soon my throat will close. I carry epi-pens, benadryl and pepcid. I haven’t been able to eat a meal without taking antihistamines first. I avoid all raw fruit and vegetables for fear or being allergic to the proteins in the skin that are close to latex. If I don’t take benadryl I take meclizine (another antihistamine) and ativan to battle the anxiety caused by eating. I no longer enjoy food, eating has become a daunting task and I pop antihistamines like tic tacs.
    I don’t know what to do at this point. I am waiting to see an allergist, but I think perhaps a therapist may be needed as well.

  • Tricia

    October 29th, 2015 at 3:13 PM

    I am in the same boat. I’m actually battling not eating enough calories, having to count calories so I don’t eat to few. I’m also a nursing mom so it makes things worse

  • Faith

    January 2nd, 2016 at 3:52 PM

    Hi I’m Faith, I’m 17, and I’m allergic to peanuts, cashews, and pistachios. Random nuts right. So I had my first allergic reaction when I was 2, and I haven’t had a reaction since. My parents trained me to become extremely cautious, which I guess is good, and I ask about everything. Recently I’ve had so much anxiety about eating, even foods I know don’t have nuts, but I force myself to go to events and eat at least something. I get really embarrassed and anxious, because I always make up scenarios in my head of having an allergic reaction, and I think of how embarrassing it would be to just be out on a fun night and then having to be rushed to the hospital. I also hate asking all the time, although I have to, because I’ve had a few people make fun of me for asking about foods that probably wouldn’t have any nuts. Also, I have never been to any kind of therapy, and I want to know if I need to. Overall, I was wondering if anyone had any tips to not be so scared about eating, since I am going to college soon, and I want to know how to chill lol. Thank you!!

  • Jenna

    January 22nd, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    I am so happy that I’ve came across this page!!! I have 21 allergies including all nuts, eggs, dairy wheat to name a few and up until a couple of months ago I ate what I could with no problems. But it all changed when I watched a TV program and this ladies husband died from an egg allergy! Since then whenever I eat something which I know is harmless to me I feel lightheaded and feel like my throat is closing up. It’s ruining my life, I dread it when people suggest going out of a meal coz even tho I ate at the same place before, my head conjures up scenarios like ‘what if they changed something e.g. The oil it’s cooked in’ I feel too embarrassed to tell my family in case they think I’m being ridiculous. Do you think I need to see a therapist???

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    January 22nd, 2016 at 1:18 PM

    Dear Jenna,
    Thank you for your comment. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we encourage you to reach out. If you are experiencing anxiety or are concerned about your allergies, it may be helpful to speak to a health care professional.

    If you’d like to locate a therapist or counselor in your area, you can do so using our site. Simply enter your ZIP code here:
    http://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

    Wishing you the best,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Catherine

    September 30th, 2016 at 3:02 AM

    I’ve gone through anxiety over my food allergies (Peanuts, nuts and sesame seeds) to the point were I have lost weight and anytime I saw someone eating nuts I’d think I was having a reaction (anxiety mimics it quite well). How do I go on dates with this allergy? Going out to eat is one of my biggest fears, and I never go out to eat or I get worried a guy might have eaten nuts and then if you kiss, boom you’ll be rushed to hospital. What can I do, I always get embarrassed listing my allergies.

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