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Personality plays a role for people with a food allergy — but it's not what you think

March 5, 2018 9:00 AM
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Personality plays a role for people with a food allergy — but it's not what you think

Who among us experiences the most grief from food restrictions?

On top of scanning labels in the grocery store and searching restaurant menus for safe foods, people with food allergies have to worry about having life-threatening reactions at seemingly innocuous outings to the neighbourhood coffee shop or Grandpa's birthday party.

But not everyone responds to those restrictions in the same way. In fact, new research that explored the role personality plays in living with food allergies made some surprising findings about who among us experiences the most grief from food restrictions.

The researchers hypothesized that higher degrees of neuroticism would be associated with experiencing more frequent allergy issues in daily life, exacerbating stress.

But that wasn't the case at all. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that people with the highest degree of neuroticism didn't report more allergy issues or high degrees of stress from coping with their food restrictions.

"People higher in neuroticism are better equipped, psychologically speaking, for eating familiar safe foods," said lead author, psychologist Tamlin Conner, in an email to CBC News. That wariness of unfamiliar foods can be an advantage when it comes to living with a food allergy, she said.

"Also, from a personality-theory perspective, people who are higher in neuroticism have a greater preference for routine, which works with having a food allergy because you often need to eat the same, known foods."

"The open personality craves exploration, variety and novel experiences, which is in direct conflict with the demands of living with a food allergy — requiring caution, routine and consumption of known foods," said Conner.

Dr. David Fischer, an allergist from Barrie, Ont., and president of Canadian Society of Allergists and Clinical Immunology, sees that strain take a toll on his food-allergy patients.

"Normally, eating a meal is not a stressful thing to do, whereas these individuals have to be on their toes at all times," said Fischer, who was not involved in the study. "So they're reading labels and they're asking questions repeatedly at restaurants. They're being very careful when they visit relatives … basically they're on their guard pretty much all the time."

Fischer said he wasn't surprised to read in the New Zealand study that some personality types worry not just about avoiding unsafe foods, but about being demanding of others, especially given that much of our socializing centres around food.

Conner said she hopes the study helps medical professionals understand who might be most affected by their food allergies. She also hopes it will help patients know they're not alone.

As for those novelty-seekers whose open personalities make food allergies an especially rough go? Conner suggests they steer clear of unknown foods and channel that desire for novelty into other areas — music, film, physical activity, or anything else that fires them up.

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Source: cbc.ca

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