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'Allergic Girl' Sloane Miller on Living Well with Food Allergies

Allergic GirlWe recently had the privilege of interviewing "Allergic Girl" Sloane Miller about her blog: Please Don't Pass the Nuts: Eating Allergy-Free One Meal at a Time. The widely read blog, the first of its kind, discusses her experiences living life to the fullest even with multiple food allergies and intolerances. Miller is a licensed psychotherapeutic social worker and has recently begun a private coaching practice that focuses on dealing with the panic and anxiety components of living with allergies and asthma. Her blog has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Allergy Consumer Report: First of all, what kinds of allergies do you have?

Sloane Miller: My first allergy presented in infancy when I was switched from breast milk to cow's milk and developed a rash. My pediatrician recognized this as a milk allergy and I was switched to a soy formula.

How my allergies progressed - from a dairy allergy at six months, to my first negative tree nut experience at two years old when I developed facial edema, to asthma and allergies to animals - is a very typical allergy response. It's called the atopic march, which refers to allergic or atopic responses that often begin in early infancy and are commonly associated with food allergy and eczema and the subsequent development of asthma and allergies.

Because many members of my immediate and extended family have environmental allergies and/or eczema, basically I was genetically primed to develop allergies and asthma.

I'm allergic to salmon and tree nuts, and a few years ago, I became intolerant to dairy, wheat, soy and processed sugar. I have allergic asthma, which thankfully is in remission.

ACR: How long have you been blogging about allergies, and what inspired you to begin?

Miller: I grew up in a foodie family. I was taught early on to buy the best quality ingredients I could afford and to make food fresh and tasty. Being from New York City, we had access to some of the best cuisine and chefs worldwide! So it was no surprise that as an adult I like to eat well and eat out often.

However, with severe food allergies, dining out can be a harrowing experience. Zooming around the Internet, I didn't see anyone blogging about what it's like to be an adult dealing with food allergies, especially in social contexts with friends, family and within romantic relationships. I also didn't see anyone listing restaurants that were safe for the food allergic community.

So I did as Mahatma Gandhi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

In August 2006, I created my blog Allergic Girl which features my adventures dining out, interviews with allergy-sympathetic chefs, product reviews and thoughts about creating a safe social environment within which to dine safely without fear or shame.

ACR: What types of positive experiences have stemmed from your blog?

Miller: I receive many emails from grateful parents who have newly diagnosed food-allergic children. These parents are so glad to know that their children can survive food allergies, can grow up and have a normal life - go out, travel, eat out, date, marry and have friends who will be understanding. My blog has given these parents a look at a positive future for their children.

ACR: What inspired you to begin your coaching practice?

Miller: Because I have lived a lifetime with allergies and asthma, I know this community intimately. Coupled with my training in direct therapy practice, I had my "Aha!" moment and realized I could bring this personal experience and expertise to others who live with similar conditions.

I'm a licensed social worker in the state of New York and opening up a private practice for people like me - chronic illness sufferers who may feel isolated, whose avoidance strategies may be inefficient, or who may feel a sense of shame about asking for what they need is the right step in the progression of my career.

ACR: How have you helped others with food allergies eat out safely?

Miller: Allergic Girl has helped bring together allergic and food intolerant individuals with restaurants that are able to meet their needs. I've documented many encouraging experiences with chefs, restaurants and general managers who are more than happy to create an allergy-friendly meal that is also delicious.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. I look for restaurants that want to feed me well and I find restaurants that want to feed me well!

I believe it's helpful for people to read that eating out is possible for those of us with manageable food allergies or food intolerances. I still have fears about eating out but I also have a very clear plan of eating-out action that has helped manage that fear. Basically I give everyone at a restaurant the opportunity to know that I'm coming, to know what my needs are, to know how to take care of those needs, and I follow up. I call it Creating The Cheers Experience.

I've discovered that many restaurants appreciate the business that the food allergic community brings. One reason: because when someone with food allergies dines out, it's usually not alone. They bring their friends, family, loved ones, colleagues who also want to be sure the food they're eating is food-allergy friendly for the sake of their friend or family member. In addition, the food allergic community is fiercely loyal to a restaurant or chain that can serve them or their loved ones an allergen-friendly meal.

A large component of my website confirms that chefs want the food allergic diner's business. Really good chefs want to feed you; they're a nurturing bunch and all they want to do is keep you happy with safe food. If you tell them clearly how to do it, I have found that often they'll be happy to accommodate you.

We will be discussing the issues around food allergies and the restaurant business at the food allergen panel I'm moderating, March 9, 2008, at the International Foodservice and Restaurant Show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City.

Additionally, I've just started a new series of dining out events where people with food allergies and intolerances can have a fun social evening and practice their "Allergic Girl" tips for eating out safely. It's called the Worry-Free Dinner. We'll be going to some great restaurants, and it's an opportunity to meet other people with similar food considerations. The chefs I've spoken to are excited about it and I believe it will be a breakthrough in creating support and community around eating out with food allergies.

ACR: Do you have any travel tips for people with food allergies?

Miller: When I travel here in the United States and I'm staying in a hotel, the first place I go to is a supermarket and purchase safe, fresh snacks of fruits and veggies. Also, I'll make foods at home that I can bring with me, like gluten-free granola - something that is shelf stable and needs no refrigeration.

I've found when traveling away from one's safe home base, attitude is also an important component. Traveling somewhere new should be fun, not anxiety-producing. I try to remain upbeat, fully acknowledging that I will encounter dining difficulties and make all efforts to retain my sense of humor and adventure.

On the safety side, I make sure everyone I'm traveling with knows my food allergy and asthma action plan. I bring allergy cards that spell out what I cannot eat and what will make me ill, I make a point of knowing where the local hospital is located or know the number of a local doctor and I always have up-to-date medication on hand.

As anyone with food allergies or asthma knows: Always be prepared!

Visit the Allergic Girl Blog to learn more. For more information about worry-free dinners or life coaching sessions, contact Sloane Miller MFA MSW LMSW at 917.549.8185 or allergicgirl@gmail.com.

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