From peanuts to wheat, food allergies seem more common than ever. Luckily, with awareness and planning they can be managed with ease. If dancers on your competition team have dietary restrictions, they’re likely used to dealing with them. However, it’s up to you as team leader to make their experience in the group as normal—and safe—as possible. Follow these tips to safeguard your dancers so they can stay focused on camaraderie and fun at the event.
In the Know
First, it’s important to distinguish the difference between food allergies and intolerances. Allergies are an immune system response to food or ingredients and can result in hives, a rash, difficulty breathing, itchy throat, swelling of the skin or throat, nausea, vomiting, bloating and, in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock or death. The most common food allergens are fish and shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, gluten and wheat, milk, eggs and soy.
Allergic reactions can be acute and dangerous. A reaction to peanuts, for instance, requires an immediate injection of epinephrine (and then an immediate trip to the ER) to treat anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death in a matter of minutes. A lactose allergy, on the other hand, usually presents itself as hives, wheezing and vomiting, and can be treated with Benadryl or Claritin.
An intolerance is not an immune system reaction, but rather an inability to properly digest certain foods, resulting in gastric intestinal distress. Lactose intolerance (the most common), for example, occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough enzymes to break down or digest lactose. Some people are able to eat yogurt, while others must cut all dairy products out of their diets. Those who suffer from Celiac Disease must completely avoid gluten, a component found in wheat.
The bottom line: Don’t assume any food is safe for your dancers. Even rice, which is the most hypoallergenic food, could be an allergen to someone. The good news, says Andrea Chernus, a registered dietitian with Nutrition Conditioning, Inc. in New York City, is that while allergies can develop at any time in one’s life, most people outgrow them by age 5. In fact, she adds, only one percent of adults suffer from food allergies.
1. Taking allergies and intolerances seriously doesn’t require a big fuss. It can be as easy as letting students know you are there to help. “Make sure they know that helping them is not a burden, and ask specifically how you can make a difference,” says Amanda Buller, a registered dietician who works for Remuda Ranch, an Arizona clinic for women and girls with eating disorders. “Maybe it means holding their Epipen, or always carrying Benadryl.” Consult with parents to develop an emergency plan.
2. Before traveling, ask parents of children with allergies what chain restaurants they frequent, so you can plan stops ahead of time. “You want to take them somewhere familiar, rather than putting them in the situation of asking the waiter if a dish has eggs or if it’s made with this or that,” says Buller.
While dining, if someone orders a dish with an ingredient one of your dancers is allergic to, make sure they aren’t sitting next to each other. Cross contamination may be enough to cause a reaction.
3. Ensure that no one feels left out during celebrations by providing alternative desserts. “Ask moms to make individual treats with ingredients their child can eat, and freeze them so they’re ready for any celebration that may pop up,” says Buller. “Make sure there’s always a safe alternative that’s close to what the other kids are eating, so they’re not stuck always eating popsicles, fruit or Jell-O.” There are many tasty soy and rice milk alternatives to ice cream on the market.
4. Carry safe snacks. Someone with a gluten or wheat allergy can eat fruit, fruit roll-ups, veggies, Rice Chex, Rice Krispy treats, potato chips, corn chips, hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter and peanuts. A peanut allergy is easier to work around because products containing peanuts tend to be more obvious. One word of caution: Check the label on every product before purchasing. “Labels will change depending on what plant each batch of a specific product is made in,” says Buller. “One package will say nothing about nuts, and then the next month it could be made at a plant with nuts.”
A soy allergy is one of the hardest to deal with, but also one of the least common. “As long as soy isn’t in the top three ingredients on the label, it’s usually okay,” says Buller. For some people, though, any amount of soy can cause hives. Unfortunately, soy lecithin is in just about all processed foods, so read labels carefully. A few foods with no soy include fruit, corn chips, pretzels, popsicles and hard-boiled eggs.
Sara Jarrett is a writer in New York City.