Emily Stuart, dietitian with Wiltshire Farm Foods, explores the role of occupational therapists in supporting special dietary requirements
Allergies are common in the UK, with an estimated 44% of British adults being affected and almost half (48%) of these adults having more than one allergy to manage. Allergies among children are also common, with around 40% having been diagnosed with an allergy. It is important to note that allergies are not just related to the food that we eat, with the four most common allergies in children being food allergy, eczema, asthma, and hay fever.
Allergies can have a profound effect on the individual and can impact various areas of their life, including:
• Increasing fear and anxiety around food, which can lead to wider food aversions and refusal
• Isolation relating to social events and interactions, such as parties, celebrations and eating out
• Needle phobia (fear around using epi-pens for serious allergies)
• The presence of symptoms which can be distressing and can impact on day-to-day life
• Increased levels of stress due to the hyper-vigilance that is necessary for managing serious allergies.
In the UK there are 14 main allergens that need to be declared on any food packaging or through other means of information (such as menus). Although, it is important to note that you can be allergic to any substance and, as previously mentioned, it is not just food substances that can cause allergic reactions. The main 14 food allergens are:
• Cereals containing gluten
• Tree Nuts
• Sesame seeds
• Soya and
• Sulphur dioxide (sometimes known as sulphites)
When considering the wider implications of food allergies on those affected, the impact that they can have on quality of life cannot be underestimated. However, without adequate support and appropriate management, nutritional issues can also arise. This can be a particular issue for children, individuals with a physical or mental disability, as well as those living with multiple allergies. Dietetic involvement is recommended if education or further support is needed, for example awareness on hidden sources of allergens, and can be invaluable for ensuring the diet is nutritionally adequate once allergens are excluded.
In the same way that the list of foods that someone can be allergic to is extensive, dietary needs and preferences can cover a vast range of food groups or individual foods. People may avoid certain foods or food groups for cultural, religious, or spiritual reasons, or for reasons relating to health, the environment or animal welfare. We are seeing a rise in changes of certain eating habits and preferences. For example, the period between 2014 and 2019 saw the number of vegans in the UK quadruple.
Taking into consideration the scale of the population who might be affected by allergies or choose to make adaptations to their diet for various reasons, it seems reasonable to testify that healthcare professionals (HCPs) in all settings will come across people with special dietary needs or allergies. Therefore, it is important that knowledge on these areas is considered as part of continuing professional development and is current and accurate.
Occupational therapists are well placed to support people with food allergies as part of the wider multidisciplinary team, whether this is directly to the patient or client, or via the parents of younger children. Ways in which OTs can enhance the lives of those living with allergies include:
• Providing parental education
• Empowering and helping children to develop self-management skills
• Advocating for children with allergies in the school setting
• Signposting to reliable and reputable resources such as Allergy UK
• Providing emotional support for those struggling to deal with allergies
Among the many skills required for impactful OT practice is the ability to support and encourage a person to enable them to manage a certain condition or health concern, without being limited by it. This is key for the management of allergies, particularly when they become more complex or debilitating. If OTs have an awareness of the different types of allergies, how they can affect individuals and how they are managed, they are well placed to deliver more holistic care to their patients or clients and to provide better person-centred care.
If you are looking for meal options that are free from the 14 major allergens, Wiltshire Farm Foods provides a breadth of detailed allergen information on all its meals through its Allergens & Special Diets Guide, as well as a specialist Free From range.
Listen to the most recent episode of the Wiltshire Farm Foods Dietitian Diaries podcast featuring Tanya Ednan-Laperouse, discussing the importance of food allergen awareness and education, on both Spotify and Apple Podcasts.