Eating safely with an allergy

Planning a nutritionally balanced allergen-free diet

In most cases, it is still possible to have a nutritious diet while avoiding the foods you are allergic to. If you are avoiding whole food groups, it is essential you consult a dietician to ensure your diet is adequate. This is especially important for young children who need good nutrition for growth.

Calcium

Getting your calcium requirement may be tricky if you are avoiding milk and milk products.

Replacing cow's milk with soy or rice milk that has calcium added is the easiest way to ensure your intake does not suffer. Note that rice milk is not suitable for children under the age of five.

Check the brand you buy is fortified - it will say 'calcium' on the nutrition panel on the packet. Adults need 1000-1300mg of calcium per day and children need 700-1300mg depending on their age. One glass of fortified soy or rice milk usually provides around 250mg. If your child will not drink any milk, look for alternatives although the choices become more limited.

Foods high in calcium include broccoli, tinned fish (with bones), oysters, soybeans and parsley. Foods with medium calcium content include tofu, baked beans, mussels, dates, almonds and bread. Foods sometimes fortified with calcium include orange juice and breakfast cereals. If you or your child have multiple food allergies it is likely that a calcium supplement will be necessary to meet requirements. Choose a supplement that does not contain calcium from shellfish sources if you have a seafood allergy.

Selenium

If you have multiple allergies, your diet may be low in selenium. This is because the main sources of selenium for New Zealanders include eggs, wheat, seafood and dairy products. Other good lower allergy sources of selenium include legumes (chickpeas, beans, lentils) and meat (especially liver and kidney).

Omega-3 fats

Fish is a good source of omega-3 fats, but other sources include canola oil, walnuts, linseed (also known as flaxseed), spinach and purslane.

Iron

Iron may be an issue for children with multiple food allergies, especially if they have an allergy to beef and lamb. For children with eczema, iron may be lost through shedding skin.

Good sources of iron include foods with added iron (Marmite®, Vegemite®, breakfast cereals, Milo®), beans (baked beans), tofu, dried apricots, raisins, nuts, whole grains, chickpeas, lentils and green leafy vegetables. Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron from plant foods so a glass of orange juice with a main meal is beneficial.

Tips for eating out and buying food when you have allergies

Eating a meal in a restaurant or café can be a harrowing experience if you have a food allergy. Here are some tips to make it easier and safer:

  • Phone the restaurant in advance. Explain you have a food allergy and ask if they can cater for this. If so, go through the menu with them and work out something you could safely eat. If they are doubtful or unhelpful, try another restaurant
  • When you arrive, talk to the wait staff and explain you have a serious allergy. If you have phoned ahead, say that you have already spoken with the chef and ask them to tell the chef you are here. If you have not phoned ahead, ask to speak with the chef or maitre d'
  • Read menus carefully and clarify what is in foods if you are unsure
  • Especially check dressings, sauces and desserts
  • Double check for garnishes or extras when the meal arrives
  • Take medication with you in case of a reaction
  • Some restaurants may allow you to take in safe food for a child or you may be able to take safe bread to have before the meal
  • Fried food may pose a particular risk as fryers often end up with bits from all sorts of foods including egg, wheat, fish, seafood and milk
  • Check food displays in supermarkets and delicatessens for possible cross-contamination
  • Ask staff whether food is prepared with clean equipment and with utensils kept separate for food containing the allergen, eg, chicken kebab kept away from peanut satay chicken.