Updated December 2020
During the holiday season, there are countless events, parties, and gatherings to attend. This time of year is full of festivities, family, friends – and food. And while copious amounts of mouth-watering holiday meals and treats may be the highlight of the season for some – if you struggle with a food allergy or intolerance, this time of year can be complicated, to say the least.
Deciphering what’s safe to eat and figuring out how to politely articulate your dietary restrictions can be downright stressful and even a little awkward. But having a food sensitivity doesn’t have to put a damper on your holiday fun!
Today we’re going to dive into some of my favorite tried-and-true tips and tricks to help you safely make it through those holiday get-togethers and still have a wonderful time. But first, let’s review exactly what food allergies and food intolerances are.
What’s the Difference Between a food allergy vs food intolerance?
Food allergy vs food intolerance- The terms “food allergies” and “food intolerances” are often used interchangeably. And while they can sometimes have similar or overlapping symptoms, there are some important and distinct differences between the two.
A simplified explanation of how these two conditions are different is:1
- Food allergies activate a direct response from your immune system
- Food intolerances activate an indirect response from your immune system via your digestive tract
Let’s take a little bit closer look at exactly how food allergies and food intolerances trigger your immune response.
What Exactly Is a Food Allergy?
Your immune system is designed to detect, identify, and eliminate any potentially harmful foreign invaders. When an invader is recognized, your immune system launches an army of proteins, chemical messengers, and specialized cells to target, attack, and eliminate the pathogen. This immune reaction is also known as the inflammatory response.
In food allergies, your body flags the compounds in a certain food as a threat that must be terminated and removed from your body. This hypersensitivity to a certain food launches your immune system into full-blown attack mode – causing anything from hives and swelling to a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.
Common Food Allergies
While food allergies can vary greatly between each individual and in theory, just about any food can have the potential to cause an allergic reaction – the vast majority of all documented food allergies are triggered by these eight common foods:2
- Tree nuts (cashews, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, etc.)
Now that we’ve covered exactly what a food allergy is and the common food allergens, let’s take a look at what a food intolerance is.
What Is a Food Intolerance?
A food intolerance does not directly involve the immune system and doesn’t have the potential to cause a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. Food intolerances are typically caused when your body can’t properly breakdown and digest some components of certain foods. Some examples might be:3,4
- The inability to adequately breakdown dairy or other foods due to a lack of digestive enzymes.
- Hypersensitivity to certain food additives like dyes, preservatives, or other fillers found in processed foods.
- A difficult time breaking down and digesting components of certain foods like gluten – the protein found in wheat.
- Lack of ability to properly break down distinct types of naturally occurring sugars.
This inability to adequately and properly digest these foods indirectly triggers an immune response – creating a vicious cycle of chronic low-grade inflammation if you’re regularly ingesting foods you’re intolerant to.
Whether you’re struggling with a full-blown food allergy or a food intolerance symptoms, avoiding foods that your body reacts negatively to is likely at the top of your priority list this holiday season.
How to Safely Celebrate the Holidays When You Have a Food Allergy or Intolerance
Having a food allergy or intolerance can make navigating holiday celebrations tricky. Figuring out what’s safe to eat and how to politely convey your needs can be downright challenging. But having food allergies or intolerances doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fun – or good food.
Here are some of my favorite tips and tricks for safely celebrating the holidays without missing out or feeling like a burden.
Communicate With the Host
If you’re attending a holiday get together at someone’s house, communicating your food allergy or intolerance is key. Many people may be unfamiliar with exactly how to accommodate food sensitivities and could unintentionally make a meal you can’t partake in.
Asking ahead of time what is on the menu and conveying exactly what you can and can’t eat can go a long way in both helping you avoid allergens and making the host feel comfortable. And it’s always a good idea to offer to bring a dish or two that you know you can eat and share the love with everyone. If you need some “allergen-friendly” recipe ideas, I’ve got some amazing recipes you can check out right here.
Focus on Whole, Unprocessed Foods
Having food allergies often means having to scour ingredient lists to determine if a food is safe or not. But focusing on filling your plate with whole unprocessed foods can help you avoid the landmines of ingredients and additives in processed foods. Things that are often safer options might include:
- Fresh veggies
- Fruit platters
- Dried fruits
This leads me to my next point – being aware of what your food is seasoned with.
Know What It’s Swimming In
Dressings, marinades, sauces, and pre-made seasonings can be chock-full of many common allergens and sensitivity-triggering culprits like:
- Artificial sweeteners
Avoid these by asking the host to hold a portion of undressed salad or to fix your serving of meat or veggies with no marinade or sauce. A simple way to circumvent allergens without sacrificing taste is to ask for olive oil, salt, and garlic. It’s simple and delicious with no hidden allergens lurking amidst a list of questionable ingredients.
Send a Package Ahead of You
If you’re traveling for the holidays and know you’ll be in an area that has limited access to grocery stores that can accommodate your diet, this can be a lifesaver. You can simply put together a small package full of essentials and have it shipped to your destination. Or you can even use a service like Amazon or Vitacost and have them ship and deliver whatever you’ll need.
This works particularly well for non-perishables like:
- Coconut milk
- Nut butters
- Oils like coconut oil or olive oil
- Dark chocolate
- Dried fruits
Even better, you can order a little extra or leave any gourmet leftover items for your host to enjoy. Nothing says “thank you” better than a high-quality, tasty, and healthy gift!
Don’t Go Hungry
Showing up to a holiday celebration feeling ravenous can make it easier to make less-than-ideal choices and make us prone to overeating. When your belly is grumbling and you’re feeling hungry, the temptation of delicious food can simply override your better judgment.
So eating a small but filling snack like nuts/seeds, guacamole, or some jerky can keep those hunger pangs at bay and make it easier to make choices your body will thank you for later. And if you know there won’t be any safe food options for you, make yourself an appetizing meal and eat before you go. There’s nothing wrong with simply enjoying the company and not the food.
Don’t Eat Something if You’re Uncertain
If you do show up to the celebration and you’re not able to get a clear idea of exactly what’s in a dish, you’re probably better off skipping it. This can be tricky – especially if someone is gifting you a food item or you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. But eating food you’re uncertain of isn’t worth the risk of triggering your allergy or intolerance.
Politely declining and explaining your food sensitivities is almost always explanation enough and can usually circumvent any hurt feelings from the host or other party-goers.
Bring Your Own Back-Up Food
Bringing your own backup food is particularly important if you’re traveling long distances to ring in the holidays with loved ones. Whether you’re traveling by plane or car – you just never know when you’ll get hit with a delay and end up stranded somewhere much longer than you anticipated.
I always like to travel with a little stash of healthy choices like:
- Sunflower nut butter
- Coconut butter
- Shredded coconut
- A piece of fruit
- Dried organic beef or bison jerky
- A tin of wild salmon or sardines
- Dark chocolate
As the old saying goes, “fail to plan and plan to fail.” Planning ahead and bringing your own backup food is a great way to ensure you have the option to make safe and healthy choices regardless of the circumstances.
Set Yourself up for Success This Holiday Season
While food allergies and intolerances can be tricky to navigate, these sensitivities don’t have to hold you hostage this holiday season. Prioritizing your own health and well-being doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the connection and fun that makes this time of year so wonderful.
Use these tips and tricks to have a holiday full of fun, festivities, and love – minus the fear of triggering your food sensitivities.
From my family to yours – wishing you the most delightful and delicious holiday season making many memories with your loved ones!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.