Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Reality of Food Allergies

Last week, my friend K.C. Wells wrote a terrific piece in response to an article by Renee Moilanen entitled “Parents Should Relax a Bit About Kids’ Food Allergies.” [To read Ms. Moilanen’s article, click here.] Since K.C.’s little boy has severe allergies to milk and eggs, she justifiably didn’t appreciate Ms. Moilanen’s casual dismissal about concerns parents have regarding their children’s food allergies. [To read K.C.’s blog entry “Oh NO You Didn’t,” click here.] While Ms. Moilanen complains that trying to provide class birthday treats for her son is a nuisance when his classmates have various food allergies, K.C. points out that her son has sadly been left out of sharing birthday treats when she wasn’t given prior notice so that she could provide an allergen-free alternative treat for him to enjoy with his classmates. Moreover, Ms. Moilanen has the audacity to say that many parents of children with food allergies are simply overreacting and suggests, “I'll bet that most of the children in my son's preschool class would do just fine nibbling some foods off the allergy list.” I’m not sure what made her think that she could offer such a potentially dangerous idea; the editor’s note above her article clearly states: “Renee Moilanen is not a doctor.” As K.C. notes, her son may need to carry an Epi-pen his entire life because of the severity of his food allergies; he would not “do just fine” eating foods to which he is allergic. Furthermore, Ms. Moilanen minimizes the seriousness of food allergies when she writes, “Each year, there are only about 9,500 hospitalizations in the entire country related to children with severe food allergies.” In response K.C. wisely comments, “Maybe you think that ‘only’ 9,500 hospitalizations due to children's severe food allergies isn't that big of a deal, but I guarantee that being hospitalized was a huge deal to the parents of those 9,500 kids.”

While Alex’s food sensitivities to glutens, which are found in most grains, and caseins, which are milk proteins, are not as serious as those some children face, they have made us vigilant about removing foods from his diet that he does not tolerate well. After reading that many children with autism suffer from food allergies and sensitivities, I requested that Alex’s doctor test him to see if he had any issues with food. Using the ELISA blood test that detects antibodies indicating immune responses to food, we discovered that he followed a typical pattern seen in children with autism in that he needed to be placed on a gluten-free and casein-free diet. After more than fourteen years on the diet, Alex has done quite well by avoiding those foods that do not contain glutens and milk or milk products. The few times that he has cheated on his diet by sneaking foods he shouldn’t eat, we saw behavioral reactions that convinced us he needs to remain on the diet. Of course, Ms. Moilanen would probably disagree and simply think that we should relax and let Alex eat whatever he wants. Clearly, she’s never witnessed what happens when a teenager with autism breaks his CFGF diet by eating a paczki (a Polish jelly donut traditionally eaten for Mardi Gras); essentially it’s the equivalent of giving a kid two double espressos. As they say, “Don’t try this at home.”

In reading Ms. Moilanen’s article, two things struck me as the parent of a child with food sensitivities as well as an autism mom—her lack of compassion for these parents and children and her self-designated expertise. Unfortunately, she is not the only observer who feels confident about criticizing how other parents handle their children, even though she has no first-hand knowledge of the problems the parents are facing. Until we have walked in another parent’s shoes, we have no right to judge their decisions and actions, especially when that parent’s primary motivation is doing what’s best for the health and welfare of the child. Rather than feeling sympathetic toward her son’s classmates who cannot eat chocolate cupcakes, Ms. Moilanen resents their parents for not allowing their children to eat foods containing allergens so that her son can have the birthday treat of his choice. Perhaps a better lesson for her son would be for her to teach him compassion for these children who, unlike him, cannot eat anything their hearts desire.

While keeping Alex gluten-free and casein-free has required research, creativity, and diligence, I’m certain that he is healthier for being on the diet. Overall, he has been very cooperative about not eating foods he shouldn’t, and I think he probably eats a more varied diet than most people because he is willing to try any fruit, vegetable, or meat. As I’ve noted previously, the only foods he won’t eat are popcorn, mashed potatoes, and sometimes broccoli. Whenever presented with a new food, he will always ask, “Does this have glutens or dairy?” Although some people have sympathetically asked about the limitations of his diet and inquired as to whether he’ll always have to avoid certain foods, they have never questioned our decision as parents to keep him on the diet. Fortunately, the increasing number of gluten-free foods that actually taste good have made feeding Alex easier. Moreover, my mom and I both enjoy baking and have learned to make homemade cakes and cookies using alternatives to wheat flour and milk products. Hence, the sacrifice becomes less of a sacrifice, and we are blessed that Alex is so cooperative.

As I reread “Parents Should Relax a Bit About Kids’ Food Allergies,” I noticed a number of parents with children who have food allergies have posted comments highly critical of the article’s assertions. Obviously, these parents feel passionate about protecting their children and don’t appreciate anyone questioning their judgment. Although I’d like to think that the author could learn from the first-hand stories of these parents dealing with their children’s food allergies, I suspect from her tone that she will only resent them even more. God clearly knew what he was doing when he entrusted the children with food allergies to these parents who are willing to fight for their children and keep them safe. As for those like Ms. Moilanen who can only offer criticism and bad advice, well, “Let them eat cake!” We’re too busy taking care of our kids to care what they think.

“God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” Matthew 5:10


K. C. Wells said...

Well-stated, Pam. We're all doing the best we can for our children, and we shouldn't be judged for that.

Julie Moore said...

I stumbled across your piece when I was looking through Google to see how much damage that article did (and found out it was published in several places!!!! (Google “Renee Moilanen food allergies” and you’ll see all the places – at least 4)), and I couldn't agree with you more. I also wrote a blog post of my own in response to that article called, “Food Allergies: Fact or Fiction” ( She totally came across as a mother having a hissy fit, and it made me so sad to think that people could actually feel that way and give advice like that!

I’m so grateful that we only deal with food sensitivities at this point to certain foods, but food allergies run in my family and my hubby’s family that vary in wide range of reactions from pain to hives to headaches to anaphylaxis. I also have several friends with food allergic children or who face food allergies themselves that are just as far reaching in reactions as they are in my family. I’ve seen a child struggle to breathe and swell up like a balloon to a MINUTE exposure to peanuts or eggs. They are no joke and nothing to make so light of. I hope that woman, and others like her, get educated!

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks, K.C. and Julie--I totally agree with both of you. Unless a person has dealt with food allergies and sensitivities themselves or through their children, he/she should not be judging those of us who are.
Take care,