The most common food allergens are dairy, eggs, seafood (i.e., shellfish), tree nuts, peanuts, wheat/gluten and soy. Still, there are many other allergies and sensitivities to food out there. For example, I have a friend who is allergic to all citrus fruits, a friend's husband is allergic to quinoa, I can't eat broccoli, my sister is allergic to black pepper, my mom was allergic to bananas, and so on.
So often, people email me asking if they can be plant-based if they have allergies — and the answer is yes. It doesn't matter what your allergy is or how many allergies you have, you can be plant-based. It takes a little creativity at times, but it's possible.
For those with common allergies, especially allergies to things like corn, soy and wheat, eating plant-based tends to much safer since animal feed contains many common allergens that can trigger a reaction.
We discovered this the hard way with my sister. In addition to being allergic to black pepper, she's also allergic to cottonseed. It seemed pretty easy for her to avoid cottonseed. Except for a few brands of tortilla chips, peanut butters and icing, cottonseed isn't a common ingredient in food. She gave those foods up (or switched to brands that didn't use cottonseed) and yet she wasn't seeing much improvement. Her allergy symptoms were going strong.
After some digging, Courtney learned that cottonseed oil is included in most animal feeds. It was a lesson that you are what you eat (and what it eats). The cottonseed was going into the animal's muscle (meat), coming through in the milk, etc. and so forth. Even though chicken breasts, cheese, and other foods sold at the store didn't include "cottonseed" in the ingredients, my sister was still ingesting cottonseed — just unknowingly. Once she eliminated animal products and went 100% plant-based, her symptoms completely cleared.
The basis of a plant-based diet is whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables (and limited amounts of nuts and seeds). Nearly all these foods are free of the top 8 common allergens. While tree nuts, peanuts, wheat/gluten and soy can be part of a plant-based diet, you don't have to eat them.
In fact our meal plans are always soy-free, gluten-free and typically nut-free, too.
Other allergies to specific plant foods, say mangoes, or onions, or in my case, broccoli, can typically be worked around.
I find when dealing with allergies, the first thing you need to do is switch your mindset to "abundance" and not "deprivation." Think of all the foods you CAN have, not what you're having to give up.
I had a client come to me recently. She was allergic to roughly 20 different plant foods, including all legumes (beans), all nuts (including peanuts), and gluten. She insisted there was nothing she could eat. I asked her to sit down and start writing a list of foods — fruits, vegetables, grains, whatever, that she isn't allergic to. She got tired of writing before she ever came close to finishing.
"I guess my diet really isn't that limited after all," she remarked. The problem was she had been concentrating so hard on the foods she was allergic to that she couldn't see all the foods she could eat. What's that expression? Forest for the trees or something?
She'd ask me things like, "but if I'm allergic to all nuts and legumes, where will I get my protein?" And I'd tell her how protein was in ALL foods and even if she ate nothing but potatoes all day, she'd still exceed her daily protein needs.
I could tell she wasn't buying it, though, so I told her to go home and only eat fruits, vegetables and grains, and come back the next day with her food journal. We plugged it into a calculator and she was amazed instantly. "I can't believe I ate 30% protein!" And with that, she left happy as an uneaten clam.
The trick to dealing with allergies is to first make a list of all the foods you canhave. Then make a list of good substitutions for foods you are allergic to.
For example, I'm allergic to cauliflower — so anytime I see a recipe I want to try that has cauliflower, I use potato. A friend of mine is allergic to tomatoes, so she uses red bell peppers or beets in place of the tomatoes.
It can be a lot of trial and error, but you can also find a wealth of information online. Try Googling "Substitution for [ingredient name]."
Related blog post: Ingredient Substitutions & Recipe Adaptions
Here are some FAQs I get about allergies:
I'm allergic to nuts and seeds
I find this allergy is generally easy to avoid on a plant-based diet (I personally avoid nuts and seeds as they don't sit well with my stomach). In most recipes, nuts and seeds are a garnish or added in (i.e., walnuts in banana bread) and leaving them off won't destroy the recipe. You can omit them without running into any issues.
If you're only allergic to one item, say, peanuts, you could try using a tree nut like almonds, cashews or almond butter (in place of peanut butter) instead.
If you're allergic to peanuts and all tree nuts, but not seeds, you could try sunflower seed butter or soy nut butter if you're not allergic to soy or legumes.
I also find beans, particularly white beans, tend to replace nuts really well in savory recipes. For example, in HHA I have a nut-free pesto stuffed mushroom recipe and that uses beans instead of pine nuts.
I'm allergic to legumes
In many recipes, you can leave off the legumes without much trouble. For example, if a stew calls for a can of white beans, the stew will be fine without the beans added. Instead of black bean enchiladas, try making sweet potato and kale enchiladas. Be a little creative!
That said, trying to replace beans in things like bean burgers gets a little tricky, and I'd advise on skipping over those "heartbreak" recipes and look for recipes where beans can more easily be left out or look for a bean-free recipe of what you're craving, i.e. if you want a "burger," try searching for a mushroom burger recipe instead.
Lastly, if you're not allergic to lentils, lentils are a great bean substitute and very versatile.
I'm allergic to soy
You can usually leave edamame off any recipe it's called for. If you're not allergic to beans, you can try using beans instead of edamame. Beans and vegan yogurts (rice, coconut or almond-based) can also stand in for tofu, depending on if it was a firm or silken tofu called for. See my post about How to Replace Tofu.
You can use coconut aminos instead of soy sauce, and chickpea miso instead of soy-based miso. Also opt for almond milk, oat milk or rice milk instead of soy milk.
For more information:
Herbie 101 Series: Soy & GMO
Ask Happy Herbivore: Soy-Free Vegan
P.S.: Our meal plans are always soy-free!
I'm allergic to corn
The easiest way to replace cornstarch is to use arrowroot (available at all health food stores and larger supermarkets). Another option is potato starch, though I have never used it. After a little Googling, I found this recipe where millet is used to make cornbread.
In most recipes that call for corn, such as a vegetable chili, you can leave the corn out without running into problems. Obviously, you'll need to avoid corn chowder — but any soup or dish with corn as a component will generally survive if the corn is missing.
I'm allergic to wheat and/or gluten
I find gluten and wheat are also fairly easy to avoid on a whole foods plant-based diet. There are some whole grains you have to avoid, like barley or couscous — but quinoa, rice, millet or any other gluten-free grain can generally be substituted without issue.
Brown rice wraps and corn tortillas are easier to come by and a great alternative to their white flour counterpart. You can also make or buy commercially prepared gluten-free flour blends that replace whole-wheat flours in cooking. (There is a fool-proof blend in EHH and HHA). You can find brown rice pasta and quinoa pasta at all supermarkets. Although I advocate eating as whole as possible (whole grains over fiber broken grains like breads and pasta), you can still find or make gluten-free alternatives with ease.
For soy sauce, use wheat-free tamari.
Gluten Free Herbies
Gluten Free Seitan
Gluten-Free Happy Herbivore (Gluten-Free Vegan)
Using Gluten Free Flours
What is Gluten Free?
P.S.: Our meal plans are always gluten-free!
Our friends at Engine 2 also have great posts on allergies, including tips for substitutions.
Allergy: Nuts & Seeds
Allergy: Soy & Other Legumes