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

Having a food allergy is tough. But not everyone responds to those restrictions in the same way.

Who among us experiences the most grief from food restrictions?

Psychologists and food scientists have explored how certain personality traits correlate with the reported day-to-day experiences of managing allergies. (Shutterstock)

This is an excerpt from Second Opinion, a weekly roundup of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news emailed to subscribers every Saturday morning. If you haven't subscribed yet, you can do that by clicking here.


Having a food allergy is tough.

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.

A group of psychologists and food scientists from the University of Otago in New Zealand explored the impact of what's known as "the big five" personality traits on a group of 108 adults with food allergies diagnosed by a physician. The aim was to see how those traits correlated with the reported day-to-day experiences of managing allergies. The big five are:

  • Neuroticism.
  • Extraversion.
  • Openness.
  • Agreeableness.
  • Conscientiousness.

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.

So what gives?

"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."

It turned out that those who had the highest degree of openness in their personalities actually experienced the most allergy issues and highest related stress.

Patients 'have to be on their toes'

"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.

To read the entire Second Opinion newsletter every Saturday morning, subscribe by clicking here.

About the Author

Brandie Weikle

CBC News

Brandie Weikle is a senior writer for CBC News based in Toronto. She's a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with specialities in parenting and health. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.