Thousands of young people in the UK have started university, or will be starting in the next few weeks, and for most of them it will be their first time living away from home. For those who suffer with food allergies, this can mean more than just learning how to cook or do their own washing.
According to statistics collated by Allergy UK, over 20 per cent of the UK population is affected by one or more allergic reaction and, in the 20 years to 2012, there was a 615 per cent increase in the rate of hospital admissions for anaphylaxis. Which means that more and more people are suffering from potentially life-threatening food-related allergies. This can be a problem for students moving into dorms, having to share kitchens or rooms with others who might not necessarily understand the potential dangers behind food allergens.
On top of this, students with food allergies might find themselves suddenly taking on the full responsibility for managing their own allergies, which can be problematic in an environment where they may feel the pressures from their peers to try new things. In fact, a survey conducted by the Clinical and Translational Allergy journal found that, out of a study of 520 young people aged 15-25, only 66 per cent reported carrying their epinephrine auto-injector everywhere they go.
Angela Simpson, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester, says, "It's about mums no longer supervising what they eat, it's about drinking a bit too much alcohol and not wanting to embarrass themselves if they can't eat somewhere when everyone else wants to."
Although there are pressures to have a ‘normal’ university experience, many universities themselves are looking at ways in which they can support students with food allergies and nutrition in general. In fact, many studies have found that nutrition affects student achievement in school – those who receive wellness care and healthy meals throughout their education were four times more likely to graduate from college.
All UK universities now have policies regarding food allergies and what they provide to cater for students with food allergies, whilst some universities in America, like Gonzaga, Whitworth and Eastern Washington University (EWU), are taking a new approach to campus dining - offering healthy foods to suit everyone, nutritional counselling, allergy-free foods stocked in the dorms and nut-free food processing.
Although universities are now doing more to help students manage their allergies and diets, those individuals who do have allergies should also put plans in place to help them navigate university life safely:
Register with the local medical practice and on-site health centre, if there is one, and ensure prescriptions are set up for any medication required. If the allergy can cause a life-threatening reaction, think about giving a trusted adult power of attorney, in case communication is no longer able. Remember to always have an emergency care plan in place.
Read through the university’s policy on food allergy and what they do to help – they might provide specialised foods, ingredient lists or dining plans for those with allergies. If there aren’t any catered facilities on campus, why not try out some cooking courses, like Virtual College’s The 60 Second Chef range, to understand the basics of getting started in the kitchen and planning nutritious meals.
Communicate any food allergies and their severity to roommates and friends, so they understand how to prevent cross-contamination. It may also be a good idea to share the emergency care plan with them and demonstrated how to use epinephrine auto-injectors in case there is an accident.
Try to plan ahead to avoid unnecessary risks, ask for ingredient labels or see if events can cater diet-specific food. Also, remember to drink in moderation, as alcohol can increase risk-taking behaviour.
Check if there’s a student group for those with food allergies, dietary restrictions or other medical concerns. If not, start a group or find support online.
Food allergies have a big impact on people’s lives, especially during times of transition like heading off to university. The impacts of food allergens on food allergy sufferers are still not well known amongst the general public, but those working in food-handling roles should understand the difficulties and be aware of how to store, prepare and cook food safely. If you work in a food-handling role and are unsure of this, Virtual College offer a Food Allergy Awareness Training course to help you prevent potentially life-threatening accidents.