By Blythe Copeland, TreeHugger
A food allergy diagnosis can range from being a minor inconvenience — like having to read labels to check for food dye — to a major health issue (think extreme, lethal allergies to milk, eggs, and nuts).
But let’s look at the bright side for a moment: If you’re forced to pay attention to every ingredient that goes onto your plate, you could also be making better choices for your health and the environment — from choosing foods with smaller carbon footprints to defaulting to organic produce over packaged goods. In fact, we could learn a lot from the way people with food allergies approach their plate.
1. You Know Where Your Food Comes From
Whether you’re allergic to nuts, soy, dairy, eggs, gluten, or any other ingredient, a food restriction means you spend a lot more time reading labels — and figuring out exactly where your food comes from. Someone with a deadly allergy — like one to peanuts — needs to trust the source of their food.
A general awareness of what you’re eating and how it got to your plate gives you a better understanding of the environmental impact of your daily diet, from the miles traveled by those South American bananas to exactly what goes into selling tomatoes in New England in January. Once you start thinking about the production and distribution of every single ingredient, you’re more likely to make choices that are good for the Earth (as well as for your health).
2. You Read the Ingredients
People with food allergies spend a lot of time reading nutrition labels, checking for those hidden terms, key words, and “made in a factory that also processes” warnings.
There’s no doubt about it: that’s exhausting. And once you’re really looking at every ingredient in your packaged cereals, breakfast bars, chips, and snacks, you start to wonder: Is processed food really delicious enough to warrant taking in all those chemicals and preservatives? It’s so much easier to snack on fresh fruit and vegetables, add your own fruit and cinnamon to old-fashioned oatmeal instead of relying on the packets, whisk up your own olive-oil-and-vinegar dressings, and spend half an hour baking from-scratch brownies — plus, you know exactly what you’re eating.
3. You Consume Less Food Dye
Allergies to food dye don’t often get the same PR as other food allergies — most elementary schools don’t have a dye-free table like they do for peanuts — but these synthetic colorings have their risks: Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 are “contaminated with known carcinogens,” according to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and can cause severe reactions along with Blue 1; and Red 3 is no longer allowed in cosmetics but still goes into Fruit Roll-Ups.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest also reports that food dyes have been linked to hyperactivity — and many of them are banned in Europe.
4. You Consume Less Wheat
People suffering from celiac disease are unable to properly process gluten — which is a protein found in rye, barley, and all of wheat‘s many forms: spelt, durum, seminola, and faro, among others, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Eating gluten can cause intestinal damage in celiac patients, so many of them find themselves on a diet that restricts everything from beer and flour to cookies and pasta. But if we all consumed less wheat, we’d be cutting back on the pesticides and chemicals that go into this worldwide cash crop: Though, pound for pound, it’s less environmentally harmful than producing meat, it still requires a lot of land and a lot of resources.
5. Cutting Out Dairy Lightens Your Footprint (a Lot)
Like a gluten allergy, a dairy allergy can severely limit your food options: milk, butter, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, sour cream, and other animal byproducts are all off the menu. But while it might mean skipping that luscious-looking dessert that the rest of your party is enjoying, your aversion could end up being good for the environment: According to GoVeg and Planet Green, there are 9 million dairy cows in the United States, and many (if not all) of them live in inhumane conditions, produce 120 pounds of waste each day, and end up at the slaughterhouse, where they contribute to the environmental impact of the beef industry.
6. You Don’t Have to Think About Sustainable Seafood
If you’re one of those people, then you should avoid fish altogether (and also steer clear of certain salad dressings, Worcestershire sauce, and Asian sauces, which can all have fish as an unexpected ingredient), but that also means you’re one less eater contributing to the overfishing and black market sales of popular fish. Your doctor can tell you whether you’re allergic to all fish or just certain kinds; if you do get the go-ahead to eat certain seafood, fill your cart up with sustainable species.
7. It Rubs Off on Your Family
Every family has its chef — the person primarily in charge of packing lunches, making weekend pancakes, and getting dinner on the table each night — and that’s the person who has the most influence over how the others eat. But just one severe food allergy in a family can change the eating habits of everyone else: You’re not just cutting out dairy for one person, but for three or four or five, which has a much bigger impact on the bottom line of your family’s carbon footprint. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to give up pancakes just because mom has a gluten allergy, but it does mean that you’re more likely to make heather choices not just for yourself, but for those around you, too.