Body and food shaming are no strangers to the spotlight in mass media. They have created much discussion across the nation and opened up new ways for people to learn to love and accept themselves. Now, a new type of food shaming, one that is not dictated by someone’s looks or a meal’s calorie count, is emerging – and it's called food allergy shaming. 

Irene Kim

So why this new form of shaming, which is commonly referred to as allergy bullying? The number of food allergies has increased by 50% in America between 1997 and 2011. The exact reasons are unknown, but it's definitely way more common to have a food allergy or intolerance today than it was 20-30 years ago. It’s estimated that up to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant and 10-15% have IBS. 

Even though food allergies and intolerances are becoming more common, they're still not normal for most people. As we learn when we are young, being different opens opportunities to be bullied.

Avoiding foods that can cause a life-threatening reaction is scary enough. Even scarier is the fact that it’s not hard to find stories of kids using food as a weapon. There are children with peanut allergies who are faced with bullies who wipe peanut butter on their locker or in their hair. With the recent price increase of EpiPens, it’s important now more than ever to become cognizant of allergy bullying. 

Michelle Lin

Physical harm isn’t the only component of allergy bullying. Questions like, “What would you do if you were forced to swim in milk?” to someone deathly allergic to milk can seem like harmless teasing. The reality is anxiety and emotional distress are common for those with food allergies. Presenting hypothetical questions like this, even when not intended to cause harm, can make these problems worse.

Those who suffer from IBS, Crohn’s Disease, and other gastrointestinal problems are often put on special diets by their doctors in order to treat symptoms. It’s sometimes assumed that people follow these diets to be trendy or to lose weight. Prejudging someone based on their diet is just another form of food shaming and should never even happen to begin with . 

milk, cheese, dairy, dairy product, ricotta, goats cheese, cream
Katie Walsh

So why does this matter? It’s sad that anyone would be judged, teased, or put in physical harm because of a dietary restriction. Kids don't always understand the serious consequences of using food as a weapon. There are great organizations that are trying to increase awareness of this problem in schools, but it’s up to those that know better to lead by example.

It’s so easy to jump to the conclusion that someone has requested a gluten- or dairy-free menu for attention, or to think that there’s no legitimate health reason behind becoming a vegetarian or vegan. Assuming the reasons why someone follows a certain diet and judging them based on that assumption is not okay. 

milk, sweet, dairy product
Photo by Angelina Marioni

Putting someone with food allergies through unnecessary stress because of the way you approach their allergy is also not okay. Waving food around someone who is allergic to it, and making remarks about how their allergy is an inconvenience can cause physical or emotional harm. 

It’s time to change our mindsets about people with special dietary needs. Being mindful that these kinds of problems exist, and may be more common than you think, can help eliminate incorrect perceptions surrounding food allergies and intolerances and how society treats them.