By Henry Ehrlich
Not long ago, Dr. Sakina Bajowala, aka Allergist Mommy, took a TV program to task because one panel member, a plastic surgeon, urged viewers who want to restrict butter from their diets to tell waiters they are allergic to it. Dr. Bajowala said, among other sensible things:
- Encouraging your audience to feign illness is anathema to those physicians who work so hard to ensure that food allergies are not overdiagnosed, so that the diets of growing children are not unnecessarily limited.
- Encouraging your audience to feign illness promotes a glut of false allergy claims in eating establishments, which will undoubtedly lead to true food allergies being taken less seriously by restaurant staff.
- Encouraging your audience to feign illness goes against the grain of what you are supposed to be doing in your daily work and on your show — promoting ACCURATE information and HEALTHY choices.
This came up in the context of a conversation I had with my son, who works for a company that operates a number of excellent restaurants in New York. He asked me how many people actually have celiac disease because customers frequently mention it. I didn’t have a ready answer but told him I have been looking into it since Dr. Peter Green of Columbia Medical School spoke at the New York Allergy and Asthma Society in May. Now I have a good reason to accelerate my reading.
But then he told me a new one. A diner saw that something on the menu was served with toast, and asked if she could just have plain bread because she was “allergic to toast.” Well, knock me over with a feather. There are certain theories that connect food preparation with allergenicity. For example, there are those who think that because the Chinese customarily boil peanuts instead of roasting them as we do, this may account for the fact that the absolute numbers of peanut allergies in China are the same as ours but with four or five times the population. Then there is the fact that baking milk or egg products can make them less allergenic, allowing them to be used in oral immunotherapy trials.
But toast? It will be a long time before the NIH gives any money to study that one.
My son is conscientious in his job, as are the wait staffs he supervises. So are their chefs. They want to please their customers. If you don’t want something, say so. But no one should medicalize their preferences. Ask Allergist Mommy.