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Food Allergies: Tips for Eating Out

Whether you're trying to avoid peanuts or dairy products, experts offer strategies for dining safely at restaurants.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Having a food allergy used to mean dining out was limited to carrying your plate from the kitchen to the porch or, at best, eating at the home of a close friend or relative who could guarantee your food offenders were nowhere in sight.

Today, however, eating out is a lot easier -- and safer -- for the 2 million Americans who suffer with a mild, moderate, or even a severe food allergy.  One reason: Restaurants are more aware and more prepared.

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"The awareness of food allergies has definitely increased within the food service industry, and many restaurants now take steps to not only train their staff about the need for accommodating those with a food allergy, but also train them on what to do if an allergic reaction occurs," says John W. Fischer, associate professor and restaurant manager of Escoffier Restaurant at The Culinary Institute of America.

Among the most important steps in this direction is a training program for restaurants introduced by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) and The National Restaurant Association several years ago.

Developed as both an educational and informational tool, the program not only helps make restaurants more aware of food allergies, but also what to do in the event that an allergy-related incident occurs.

Medical doctors caution, however, that greater awareness on the part of the restaurant doesn't mean you can let your guard down completely.   

"The level with which you practice vigilance is obviously linked to the severity of your food allergy -- but everyone who is allergic needs to personally take steps to ensure their safety when dining out," says David Rosenstreich, MD, director of the division of allergy and immunology at Montefiore Medical Center and professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.    

Where do you begin? Experts say it starts with a good understanding of your food allergy.

(If you have food allergies, do you eat out? How do you keep yourself safe? Share with others on WebMD's Allergies: Support Group message board.)

Food Allergies: Know What to Avoid

Clearly, the most obvious way to avoid having a food allergy reaction while eating out is not to order the offending food. But that's not always so easy. Sometimes you can’t fully see what you're getting on your plate.

"You really have to be aware of hidden ingredients. Your allergen could be lurking in breading, a salad dressing, baked goods, or sauces, then it might not be obvious when your meal arrives," says Jonathan Field, MD, director of the Allergy and Asthma Clinic at NYU Medical Center and Bellevue Medical Center in New York.

You should also know the other names for your offending foods. Sometimes, Rosenstreich says, products used by chefs -- such as mixes for sauces or dressings -- list ingredients by alternate names. That means if you're going to request that something be left out of a dish, it's vital to know all the terms, including derivatives under which your allergen may be listed.

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