Food Allergies Psychologically Impact Social Experiences

We all have an inherent human emotional need to associate with and be welcomed by others within groups. Whether it’s the kickball team, family, the neighborhood book club or the office, the need to belong is at the heart of each of us feeling accepted, getting attention and gaining/providing support.

As we go through life, we are motivated to fulfill these social needs along with our basic needs of food, housing and love. It drives our need to feel good about ourselves.  

“The need to belong is an intrinsic motivation to affiliate with others and be socially accepted,” says Educational Consultant Kendra Cherry, MS. “People will also spend a great deal of time comparing themselves to other members of the group in order to determine how well they fit in.”

The same could be said for individuals with food allergies. Social experiences are hard enough to attend for some. Add food to the experience — as most do — and you’ve added another level of psychological impact for those with food allergies. Individuals want to fit in and don’t want to stand out with a food allergy that creates a challenge in a public setting. It brings about feelings of anxiety and stress, impacting their experiences and quality of life, and creates a psychological strain. 

A key ingredient

‘It’s (having a food allergy) a psychological challenge because it inhibits a human being’s general drive to fulfill needs,” says Jeanne Herzog, PhD with Summit Psychology Clinic. “These three needs – feeling good about ourselves, feeling a need to belong, and the basic need of having food for sustenance – can become inhibited when there is a food allergy.”

Food is a key ingredient at social functions, especially during networking opportunities at meetings and events. Someone with a food allergy might decide not to attend these functions as a way of hiding their allergy, or even worse, attempting to eat foods that can cause a reaction just to blend in.  

“People who don’t understand food allergies think the person is overreacting or that they’re being picky about food, or that they’re being high maintenance,” Herzog says. “This leaves the person suffering from an allergy in a position of not feeling very good about themselves socially. This is where food intersects with self-esteem and social occurrences – feeling a need to belong.”

Many times attendees bring their own food when they are concerned their allergy won’t be addressed. Lisa Rosenberg, M.Ed., MSW, LSW, CSSW, a food allergy therapist, suggests giving the opportunity to speak with the chef directly and ask key questions regarding the food’s ingredients and preparation.

“It’s so limited in this knowledge of people who truly understand what it means to have a food allergy and how to appropriately accommodate them,” Rosenberg says.” I want to talk to the chef because I get it. It makes a big difference when it’s coming from the person who knows which questions to ask and what follow-up questions to ask.”

Natural and Simple

It’s important that event hosts and kitchen staff understand people with allergies are not asking for a fancy meal. It’s not necessary to try to copy the meal served to the other guests. Suggest cooking the food naturally and simply, bringing out the natural flavors of the food. 

“Because I’m not at the meeting for the food, but I need food to survive and function and use my brain power,” Rosenberg says. “So to me, do I care if I don’t have a crazy good meal that everyone else has? No, I don’t. I’ve always shifted my focus away from the food aspect.”

When I educate meeting professionals on how to best accommodate participants with food allergies, I suggest designing registration forms using check boxes rather than open-ended questions. At a minimum, I suggest listing the top eight allergens, and, if your audience has international attendees, listing the top 22 allergens regulated by governments around the world. Because eating was added to the Americans with Disabilities Act 2008 Amendment, allergies can be listed under the disabilities section of your form with “medically necessary diet” as an option.  Labeling food with the allergens they contain is imperative, as is having staff who know what they are serving.

psychological impact of food allergies

“Just being aware and asking questions and saying, ‘What special needs do we need to account for when we’re ordering food and preparing food?’” gives your guests who have food allergies a feeling like they’re being taken care of, a feeling that they are being respected,” Herzog says. It also helps reduce the psychological impact food allergies impose on social settings.