Top Food Allergies (and How to Work Around Them at Thanksgiving)

Think back to your youth. If you can’t remember food allergies being anywhere near the issue that they are now, it’s not a memory malfunction. They weren’t! Food allergies are indisputably on the rise. Consider these statistics:

Thanksgiving food allergies

(Pixabay / HeartlandMom)

  • Between 2007 and 2016, claim lines related to diagnoses of anaphylactic reactions to food increased by 377 percent. (FAIR Health)
  • The prevalence of food allergies among children increased by 18% between 1997 and 2007, and allergic reactions to foods have become the most common cause of anaphylaxis in community health settings. (Centers for Disease Control)
  • One in 13 children has food allergies, roughly equal to two in every school classroom (Food Allergy Research and Education)

These food allergies are no small matter. According to the CDC, more than 40% of U.S. children with a food allergy have experienced a severe reaction, including anaphylaxis.

What are we allergic to?
In all, more than 170 foods have been linked to reactions in the United States, but the “Big 8” foods are responsible for 90% of all food allergies. These foods include:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts (different than tree nuts in that they are not actually nuts at all, but rather legumes)
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

The most common of these are peanut, milk, shellfish and tree nut allergies. About 80 percent of youth with milk, egg and wheat allergies outgrow them by the time they turn 16. Allergies to shellfish, fish, peanuts and tree nuts tend to linger into adulthood.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Typical reactions include:

  • Tingling or itching in the mouth and/or throat
  • Swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat
  • Stuffed-up nose
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting
  • Skin rashes (hives, eczema)
  • Anaphylaxis (a severe reaction characterized by an inability to breathe, a drop in blood pressure, quickening of the pulse, dizziness, fainting, loss of consciousness)

The symptoms will vary depending on the person. For example, some people will have a mild reaction after eating peanuts, but others may have an anaphylactic reaction after merely being exposed to airborne peanut dust (let alone actually ingesting the peanut).

While certain foods (nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish) are more commonly associated with severe symptoms, all of the “Big 8” foods have triggered anaphylactic reactions in some people.

Why do our bodies react to foods in this way?
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with these foods; the problem is your body’s overreaction to them. With food allergies, your body mistakenly perceives certain food proteins as enemies and unleashes a storm of chemicals to try and fight them off. Of course, these chemicals do nothing to harm the food, but they can deplete your body in a variety of ways.

How can I keep food allergies from ruining my Thanksgiving?

  • The internet is your friend. Think stuffing is out of the question for you if you are allergic to wheat? Or that you have to forget the mashed potatoes if milk makes you miserable? Think again. There are plenty of things you can substitute for comparable results.

If you’re doing the cooking for this year’s meal, you’ll find a bonanza of recipes for people with food allergies on the internet. Try The Pretty Bee and Allergic Living, to name just a couple of great websites with allergy-friendly recipes. There’s also the Kids With Food Allergies’ Safe Eats® recipe collection that allows you to enter your particular food allergies and pull up recipes that steer clear of those foods. Start early so that you can preview recipes and find the best substitute ingredients to suit your tastes.

  • Make it about more than food. If you drill down to the purpose of Thanksgiving, it’s to give thanks for the blessings of the past year. When we make it strictly about food, we may be draining some of the fun and meaning out of the holiday for our guests—particularly those who may have had negative experiences with food due to allergies.

While food is a fun part of the Thanksgiving celebration, it doesn’t have to be the sole focus. Plan activities that give people other things to look forward to. Try these ideas:

    • Participate in a local fun run
    • Have a board game marathon
    • Watch the Thanksgiving Day parade and vote on your favorite float
    • Do an outdoor scavenger hunt to get everyone up and moving
    • Give guests sticky notes and have them write what they are thankful for (one per note) and cover the walls with them.
    • Craft! Make your own turkey out of different textiles (felt, pom pom balls, etc.) or give everyone a canvas and have them paint their rendition of the first Thanksgiving.
    • Do a puzzle. (Order early. With the pandemic, puzzles are selling out fast this year.)
  • Communicate. Knowledge is power, and you can overcome food-related challenges if people know what to expect. If you are eating elsewhere, make sure to communicate your allergies to your host. Help them know what types of food you need to avoid. Offer to bring a few dishes of your own so that you can ensure that you have safe foods to eat.
  • Make a plan for kids. If you have children with food allergies, you don’t want to spend your meal feeling nervous that your child might have a serious reaction. Talk to your kids about the big meal—especially if you are eating elsewhere. You may want to make a rule that they should never eat anything without asking you first (so that you can make sure that it doesn’t contain any trigger foods). You can also have your child sit near you during the meal as a precaution.

One way to relieve stress if your child has severe food allergies is to BYOP—bring your own plate. Let your host know about your child’s situation and that you will make their food at home and bring it pre-served to avoid any ingredients that might activate their allergies.

Above all, don’t feel alone. With so many people suffering from food allergies, there are many Americans who, like you, are trying to navigate the Thanksgiving holiday with caution.

If you find that food allergies are cutting into your quality of life, there’s good news in the form of sublingual immunotherapy. This food allergy treatment program starts with prescription drops that can be dispensed under the tongue and absorbed into the bloodstream. Over time, they help desensitize your body to the food proteins that trigger overreactions from your immune system.

It used to be that your only option for dealing with food allergies was avoidance, but new treatments such as sublingual immunotherapy are allowing people to eat more of the foods that they love without fear of negative reactions. Imagine a Thanksgiving without food allergies! Call AllergyEasy to inquire about help for your milk, wheat and nut allergies and more.

About The Author

Stuart H. Agren, M.D.

Stuart H. Agren, M.D. completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Utah and went on to earn his Doctor of Medicine from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1974. He completed additional training at L.D.S. Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah and then established his private medical practice starting in 1975. Dr. Agren completed a mini-residency in Industrial Medicine at the Robert Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University and also completed training to become a certified Medical Review Officer.

Dr. Agren was the Medical Director at TRW and McDonnell Douglas in Mesa, Arizona and at Stauffer Chemical and Kennecott Copper in Salt Lake City, Utah. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at Arizona State University.

In his private medical practice, Dr. Agren specialized in family practice and allergy. In his work as a private practice allergist, he was one of the first doctors in the country to prescribe sublingual immunotherapy to his patients as an alternative to subcutaneous immunotherapy (allergy shots). He has also been a trailblazer in the field of food allergy treatment and research, developing a program to treat multiple food allergies simultaneously using sublingual immunotherapy. Dr. Agren has been featured on local CBS, NBC, and ABC news affiliates and won the peer-nominated “Top Doc” award from Phoenix Magazine.

After 20 years in private practice, Dr. Agren became the Founder and President of AllergyEasy, which helps primary care physicians around the country offer allergy testing and sublingual immunotherapy treatment to their patients. Over 200 physicians in over 32 states use the AllergyEasy program to help their patients overcome environmental and food allergies and asthma.