12/23/2013 08:55 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

The Social Impact of Food Allergies

Gluten-free, fructose-free, nut-free, soy-free, dairy-Free, etc., etc.

These are buzzwords in the food industry these days, aren't they? To a lot of people, they seem just like the whims of the high-maintenance and privileged. Oh, those things don't matter, these people are just being overly sensitive, right? Just give 'em a little and they'll be okay!

Well actually, no.

Did you know that up to 15 million people in the United States are living with food allergies? Meaning that almost 5 percent of our population can have severe, potentially fatal, reactions to their food? When you add all of the people with food intolerances and diseases, such as Celiac Disease, that require dietary changes, you're pushing into a very large sector of our population that is forced into eating differently, just so that they can be healthy.

Clearly, this is a legitimate issue. More than 200 deaths occur yearly simply because someone eats something that they're allergic to. That is 200 more than should occur.

So why has it become okay for people to say that our food allergies, intolerances, and medically mandated diets are "whiny," "privileged" or "fake"? Of course there are fad dieters who eat in particular ways in the hopes of losing weight, but that doesn't make it okay to lump everyone into one big group and shame us all. In fact, this act of, intentionally or unintentionally "othering" those of us who have to avoid certain foods or have to eat differently than our peers to stay healthy, can have some seriously negative social and personal consequences.

A recent study in Italy showed that, of a cohort of children with food allergies, a fourth of those kids rarely attended social events, if they did at all. This is partially due to fear of eating an allergen, but largely due to the social stigma of being different. If kids with allergies even go to social events, they are more likely to bring food from home and then to eat separately from everyone else. These same kids who are forced aside aren't able to engage and have the same meaningful interactions that other kids their age are having. This has very harmful side effects, a study from New York found. Of the children with food allergies in their study, an astounding 45 percent of them reported being bullied, which is almost 20 percent higher than similar studies have shown for the average community. These children also go on to have statistically higher rates of anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

The feeling of being bullied and stigmatized does not end as children age into adults: bullying and a sense of loneliness are ubiquitous in many of the lives of those with food restrictions. The problem is with more than just our friends and with our children's schools. It's everywhere. Radio hosts, celebrity chefs and late-night programs have found those of us with different diets to be an easy target. But their words don't end when the program or interview is over. They extend into every moment of our daily lives. And when so much of our culture's social interactions revolve around the act of sitting down to a meal together and sharing our lives over food, stigma and misunderstandings leave 15 million Americans out of the equation.

So what can be done to remedy this issue? Simply educate and communicate. You've already taken the first step by reading or sharing this piece. You're spreading the word. Raising awareness around the danger of not adhering to any and all medically mandated diets is of utmost importance. If we can change the culture around food and food allergies, we won't have to worry so much about our safety or the safety of our children. We won't have to worry whether little Tommy or Katie is going to be in danger at school or if they are going to feel left out. When people stop saying that we're privileged or whiny and when they stop making fun of us on television shows, we will finally be rid of the idea that we are a burden on everyone. Don't lump us in with fad dieters, because you're erasing the importance of our conditions. Don't make it so I worry every time I go into a restaurant that I'm going to eat something that can make me sick because the waiter or chef thought my request for gluten free was something I just felt like doing that day. The impact of the way you treat our diseases, intolerances and allergies is more far-reaching than you think. So please. Educate yourself, pay attention, and do your part to keep 15 million Americans safe.