Fake Food Allergies

Be honest about food allergies. Simone Becchetti/Getty Images

Four percent of Americans have food allergies. Yet, research shows that as many as 20 percent of people claim to have a food allergy.

As you know, real food allergies have a set of symptoms, including hives, swelling, and potentially anaphylaxis, and are diagnosed by a healthcare provider (usually MD) through testing. Real food allergies cause an immune system reaction whenever the food allergen is ingested.

Some people believe they have a food allergy when what they have is food intolerance. Lactose intolerance is one such reaction, involving digestive alterations like diarrhea or excessive gas upon eating a food containing milk. While diarrhea is certainly an embarrassing side effect of lactose intolerance, it is not life threatening nor does it require medication to help ease or eliminate the symptoms. It does, however, require avoidance of foods containing milk.

Fake food allergies are quite different. While they may include a food intolerance, they are not life threatening, won’t cause an immune reaction, and may be self-proclaimed or self-diagnosed for a variety of reasons.

Why are so many people crying wolf – claiming a food allergy when one doesn’t exist? Let's take a look at some of the reasons.

Avoiding Food in a Socially Acceptable Way

A real food allergy puts everyone on alert, especially the wait staff at a restaurant or a host at a party.

If you’re at a restaurant or at a party and you don’t like what is served or are avoiding certain foods, perhaps you’ll say you have a food allergy to get out of eating it. While this may seem like an easy way out, it makes others work hard to accommodate you and your special diet.

Some popular bloggers have even gone so far as to encourage people to state they have a food allergy in order to be hyper-vigilant about food ingredients in restaurants.

To Lose Weight

Trying to lose weight? Cutting carbs is a popular way to go about this, and many have taken it one step further by slashing gluten from their diet. Because wheat-free and gluten-free are trendy diet approaches, shunning them is viewed as an acceptable and effective way to lose weight.

To Justify Restrictive and Often Dangerous Diets

Becoming too restrictive with your diet can be a red flag for an eating disorder. For the individual who has an eating disorder, claiming a food allergy may tap into the structure and rigid control that is inherent to an eating disorder. 

To Cover a Warped Relationship with Food.

If you have a “good” food/ “bad” food mentality, then those foods that fall into the category of “bad,” may elicit efforts to avoid them. How do you know if your relationship with food is unhealthy? Many food rules, such as no sugar, no carbs, or no food additives, which make eating a complicated process may be one sign of a disrupted food relationship. Others include: You can’t be trusted around food, and if you indulge, you beat yourself up in the aftermath of eating. You’re desperate to be thin, and controlling every morsel (and perhaps over-exercising) is the only way you can reach your goal.

Confusion About Real Food Allergies

Let’s face it, some people are confused by food allergies and simply don’t understand the difference between a real food allergy and a food intolerance. Take a look at the gluten-free diet, for one. About 1% of the population has a gluten allergy, otherwise known as celiac disease. With a real gluten allergy, the symptoms are varied and include an inability to absorb the nutrients in food, damage to the intestine itself, and long-term medical problems such as poor growth and a higher risk of intestinal cancer.

About 16 million people, or six times the rate of those with gluten allergy, are thought to be sensitive to gluten.

Gluten sensitivity is different, allowing you to eat foods containing gluten, but perhaps less frequently or in limited amounts. The symptoms are different too—involving gas, bloating or diarrhea without the long-term damage associated with gluten allergy.

Wrong Associations

Feeling sluggish after eating ice cream or a pasta dinner? Maybe you ate too much. Yet, some people will think they are having an adverse reaction to food, rather than think they overdid it.

Those with real food allergies face real consequences each day their conditions go undiagnosed, untreated, or aren't taken seriously. If you don’t have a true food allergy, it’s disingenuous to claim one, and it hurts those who truly do have one as it may make others think that food allergies aren’t a big deal.


Joneja JV. The Health Professionals Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerances.

Sicherer S. Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends on It

Food Allergy Research & Education: https://www.foodallergy.org