Workplace allergy

Falling into one of the stereotypes that plague our generation, I suffer from a severe food allergy that warrants confirming if food from a pre-set menu or buffet is safe for me to eat. While this is not necessarily ideal under social circumstances, this becomes a moment of extreme awkwardness at a work function for a job in corporate America. 

Due to the large number of people present at a catered work lunch or a team dinner, the food is typically a catered buffet or a pre-set family-style menu. In both of these scenarios, determining the ingredients in the food you are being offered can prove to be difficult. Especially as the most junior employee in an office, being perceived as picky in any capacity can be viewed in quite a negative light.

Despite the medical necessity of abiding by my dietary restrictions, there is a very real fear that advocating for myself to make sure that the food I eat has not been cross-contaminated will make it look like I have never grown out of picky eating habits from my childhood. 

As a young person in a corporate environment, there can be pressure to make sure that you avoid things that will cause you to be seen as too young because this can then highlight your lack of relative experiences in the workforce.

Under ideal circumstances, you are able to communicate with the organizer ahead of time to make sure that there will be options within the food available  that are safe to eat, or they are able to order you a separate meal without too much of a fuss. Unfortunately, this is not always a possibility. Often, due to the large amount of food, it is impossible to guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination of allergens present between foods. In those circumstances, your only option is to pack your own food, which then visually singles you out during the meal as the person who was too fussy to be able to eat the food that was given to them to anyone who doesn’t have the full background on the situation.

Despite the lack of severity of my dietary restriction on what foods I can eat, as many things simply do not contain tree nuts, it can still involve quite a lot of headache and baggage when it comes to food being provided by someone other than myself. When the dietary restriction becomes more encompassing, such as needing to eat gluten-free due to suffering from Celiac disease, the experience can be even worse. 

The cause of  discomfort around dietary restrictions in professional settings truly has nothing to do with having to request that your needs be met. It comes down to the way that your request is perceived by those around you. For years, the messaging around dietary restrictions has been that they are voluntary and selected to make the person feel unique or special when they are ordering. 

People who elect to follow a special diet, such as being vegan, vegetarian or a religious diet, are often viewed as being difficult for no reason in large gatherings that involve food.

Despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being selective around your diet for religious or moral reasons, the label of being “difficult” about food is extended to those of us who have dietary restrictions involuntarily.

With the perceived rise in food allergies experienced by adolescents and young adults, who are part of Generation Z or are Millennials, the messaging around our generations says that we are “fragile” and trying to make everything about us. 

While this messaging certainly extends beyond dietary restrictions into a critique of the way that young people are choosing to live their lives, the messaging around dietary restrictions can tarnish the perception of a person who has one. 

Having a food allergy, or any other dietary restriction, does not make you weak, fragile, self-centered or overly difficult. However, the fear that this is how you will be perceived lives on as long as this harmful messaging does.