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Navigating a Plant-Based Diet With Allergies

March 3, 2022

Going plant-based has a lot of up-sides: it boosts your immune system, reduces your risk for cancer, and significantly lowers your carbon and water footprints. However, being vegetarian or vegan closes the door on some big food groups, which can be especially daunting when you already have allergies. 

The FDA identifies eight major food allergens, including milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Half of these are eliminated by a plant-based diet, and it is entirely possible to be vegan while avoiding tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soy. If you are allergic to all the foods mentioned, going completely vegan may not be as easy for you, but increasing the percentage of plant-based foods in your diet is still beneficial and fun!

What does it mean to be allergic to something, though? An allergy occurs when a person’s immune system identifies a foreign substance as harmful and initiates a systematic reaction that can vary from mild discomfort to life-threatening swelling. The most serious type of allergic reaction is anaphylaxis, and it typically includes two or more of the following symptoms: on the skin, hives, swelling, itching, warmth, and redness; in the respiratory system, coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, throat tightness, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, and trouble swallowing; in the gastrointestinal tract, nausea, cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea; in the cardiovascular system, paler than normal skin color, weak pulse, passing out, dizziness, and shock; and anxiety, headaches, uterine cramps, and a persistent metallic taste. Taking all this into consideration, it’s important that we address allergies with the appropriate amount of respect and take care to protect our friends and family from having an allergic reaction.

If your elementary school had a cafeteria, protective measures may have manifested themselves in the peanut-free table or contraband foods. Acute peanut allergies tend to develop early in life and are frequently life-threatening. Between 25 and 40 percent of people diagnosed with a peanut allergy are allergic to at least one tree nut, such as almonds or cashews; about three million Americans have a peanut or tree-nut allergy.

I myself was a peanut-free table attendee, and unfortunately for us with nut allergies, plant-based dairy and meat alternatives are commonly almond, cashew, or macadamia-based. The most popular vegan dairy brands, VeganMozz and Kitehill, both use tree nuts as one of the main ingredients, so definitely avoid those if you get severe allergic reactions. The brand Daiya is tapioca starch-based and peanut and tree-nut free, as well as gluten and soy-free. The Herb is a sunflower-based cream cheese that’s been gaining popularity over the last few years. The Herb contains probiotics, is keto-diet friendly, and uses less water than its nutty counterparts. There’re also tons of recipes for homemade sunflower cheese online if you’re searching for a new culinary adventure, and if sunflowers aren’t in the cards, nutritional yeast is vegan and has a distinctly nutty cheesy flavor. Nutritional yeast is also a good source of B12 and is a complete source of protein, meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids.

Legumes are another big allergen. The most common legume allergens include peanuts (it’s true—peanuts are beans!), soybeans, garbanzo beans, lentils, and peas. However, one legume allergy does not give you a greater chance of being allergic to another legume. If you’re allergic to one or two of the legumes listed above, there’s no shame in leaning heavily on the legume you can consume. If lentils threaten your life, tofu is a pantry staple and will absorb any spices it is cooked with. If soybeans have a personal vendetta against you, no problem - who doesn’t love a classic black beans and rice plate? Nonetheless, if you are allergic to most or all legumes, there are other plant sources of protein: whole grains, tree nuts, avocados, and even some vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, and artichokes are adequate sources of protein when eaten in higher quantities. 

Legumes are common in meat alternatives, so always make sure you’re informed about the ingredients of the plant-based burgers and nuggets you’re consuming. Again, there are plenty of homemade recipes for legume-free veggie burgers, but if you’re not a big fan of cooking, the only legume in the Impossible burger is soy, while MorningStar Farmsveggie burger only has black beans. Other brands with plant-based meat alternatives include Field Roast, Amy’s Kitchen, Dr. Praeger’s, and many others with varying amounts and types of legumes. 

Gluten intolerance and Celiac disease are not allergies, but similarly limit a person’s diet. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease wherein the immune system attacks gluten and the lining of the gut when gluten is ingested. About one percent of Americans have celiac disease, but non-celiac gluten sensitivity has been discussed much more broadly in recent nutrition trends. If glutinous grains like wheat, rye, and barley are out of the question, never fear! Rice, quinoa, oats, and millet are here! Having a gluten intolerance cuts out a number of meat-alternatives — most notably, seitan. Seitan, sometimes called “wheat meat,” is a less popular protein source than tofu but is similar in how it tastes and is cooked. Additionally, many nut-based milks can have gluten, so be sure to familiarize yourself with those labels if you’re gluten-intolerant. On the other hand, many vegan foods are promoted by health trends, and the gluten-free health trend has gained enough popularity that many vegan products are also gluten-free. VegOut magazine published an article last year about gluten-free vegan frozen foods, which is available online.

In general, eating a gluten-free plant-based diet rules out most processed foods and actually increases the benefits of going plant-based. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds form three quarters of the plant-based food pyramid, and there are a lot of options and creative ways to mix and match foods of non-glutinous means. 

Sesame seed allergies have increased worldwide over the past two decades. Today, 0.23 percent of people in the United States today are allergic to sesame, and the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act recently declared sesame as the ninth major food allergen recognized by the United States. Starting January 1, 2023, the labeling of sesame as an allergen will be required. Sesame seeds are common in sushi, tahini, hummus, and baked goods, as well as in some plant-based dairy and meat alternatives. Since sesame is not yet being labelled as an allergen, make sure to carefully read ingredient labels for these foods if you ever find yourself purchasing them. Sesame oil is popular in many Asian cuisines, especially in Chinese, Korean, and Cantonese cuisines, so if you’re attending a restaurant serving any of the above, make sure to let your server know about your allergies . 

It’s entirely possible to go plant-based with allergies. That being said, if you have a collection of allergies, you don’t have to go one-hundred percent plant-based to make a difference. Just decreasing the amount of meat and dairy you consume and increasing your plant intake will improve your health and carbon and water footprints. Either way, it can be fun to try something new and go for the plant-based option when it’s readily available! 

Olivia Mestas is a summer college intern at FFAC and studies Integrative Biology at University of California, Berkeley.