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Contributor: Courtney Howard, B.A., Director of Operations & Business Development at Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope.
According to health organization Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), food allergies affect approximately 15 million people in the United States alone. These allergies can lead to extreme anxiety and general fear of food, in some cases resulting in the development of eating disorders.
Prevalence & Statistics
The exact prevalence of eating disorders within the population of those with food allergies is unknown, but there is plentiful information on the relationship between the two.
A 2007 article  explains that approximately 20 percent of the general population reports having a negative reaction to one or more foods. In some cases, this adverse reaction is the result of a food allergy. The authors acknowledge that food allergies can significantly impair quality of life and lead to higher levels of anxiety.
Similarly, a 2003 study  examined children with peanut allergies and those with insulin-dependent diabetes, finding that the former struggled with more anxiety surrounding food and restricted more due to their condition.
Eating disorders are so intertwined with anxiety that sometimes it can be difficult to tell which triggers the other. In cases of food allergies, the allergy can cause extreme food anxiety and a growing list of fear foods. Avoiding eating in public can also be common with severe allergies, leading to varying levels of isolation.
How do you determine when the line between proper caution surrounding a food allergy and the development of a full-blown eating disorder is crossed?
Effectively Coping with Allergies
It is vital to practice effective coping skills when you have a food allergy to prevent it from triggering extreme disordered behaviors. A 2010 article  elaborates that when someone has a strong food allergy, their relationship with food is inevitably and intensely disrupted. The pure freedom with food that the eating disorder community promotes is often not possible if you have a severe allergy.
Individuals with food allergies are often encouraged to check food labels religiously and have a list of “safe” foods that they can eat without anxiety. These are classic eating disorder behaviors, which is where the line becomes blurred.
Since people who have severe food allergies do not have the luxury of being completely free with their food, it is helpful for them to practice mindfulness with food and be aware of their likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Being forced to engage in certain arguably disordered behaviors to prevent consuming something you are allergic to does not mean you have to resign yourself to having an eating disorder.
Instead, practicing a healthy level of caution regarding your food intake can be achieved without excessive anxiety. If you feel yourself getting overly anxious or practicing compulsive behaviors surrounding food, you can lean back on your toolbox of coping skills.
Parents of children with food allergies can practice this same caution without anxiety, instilling this balance in their children while encouraging open communication should their child become overwhelmed.
Invisible Food Allergies
Some food allergies are more obvious than others. If someone goes into anaphylactic shock after consuming nuts, you do not question their allergy. In other cases, food allergies are disregarded or disbelieved by people’s loved ones or acquaintances.
This is becoming increasingly common with the popularity of gluten-free trends and similar restrictive diets, making it easier to discredit someone claiming to have a gluten intolerance as instead being trendy or even disordered. The social acceptability of these highly restrictive trends arguably make legitimate food allergies less believed while eating disorders fly under the radar, doing a disservice to both populations but especially those affected by both conditions.
An old study  from the 1980s found that high rates of anxiety and depression were common in patients whose self-diagnosed food allergies could not be confirmed.
When someone has an adverse reaction to food, it is often a food allergy but can also be food poisoning or other causes. Regardless, the result is typically that the individual then believes that he or she is intolerant to that food. Whether the allergy is real or not, it is very real in his or her mind, as is the resulting anxiety.
All forms of food allergies, whether they cause strong physical reactions, are clinically confirmed, or even those that are simply perceived by the individual, can cause great distress and impact quality of life. They can also lead to eating disorders and make recovery from an eating disorder that much more difficult, which is why we need to increase awareness of the risks to this population.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
How have food allergies most impacted your relationship with food?
About the Author: Courtney Howard is the Director of Operations & Business Development at Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.
References:: Neck, P., et al. (2007). “Psychological burden of food allergy.” World Journal of Gastroenterology.
: Avery, N., et al. (2003). “Assessment of quality of life in children with peanut allergy.” Pediatric Allergy and Immunology react-text: 50 14(5):378-82
: Greenberger, B., and Greenberger, E. (2010). “Food allergies and disordered eating among children and adolescents.” The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
: Pearson DJ, Rix KJ, Bentley SJ. (1983). Food allergy: how much in the mind? A clinical and psychiatric study of suspected food hypersensitivity. Lancet 1983; 1: 1259-1261
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 2, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com