International medical journal Frontiers in Psychology has published the first study connecting personality traits with the challenges of food allergies. Researchers at the University of Otago’s psychology and food science departments found that adults living with food allergies experience greater challenges managing their condition in daily life due to certain personality traits.
Lead author Dr Tamlin Conner explains that the team investigated: “whether individual differences in the big five personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) are related to food allergy-related problems in everyday life.” 108 adults with a physician-diagnosed food allergy completed a daily online survey for two weeks. The survey analysed the occurrence of 25 food allergy issues each day and the participant’s mood and stress levels.
The results differed from the researcher’s hypothesis, Dr Conner said. “We were surprised that neuroticism did not lead to more frequent allergy issues or poorer mood on days with more allergy issues. Instead, higher openness to experience was the biggest predictor of more issues, which included going hungry because there is no safe food available, problems finding suitable foods when grocery shopping, anxiety at social occasions involving food, being excluded, and feeling embarrassed and poorly understood about their food allergy.”
The study concluded that the demands of coping with a food allergy, which requires routine, caution and consumption of known foods, could be in direct conflict with a personality that desires variety and exploration. Dr Conner hopes the findings will help people with food allergies better understand how to manage the condition. She suggests trying to channel a craving for variety away from food and towards film, music or exercise instead. “They could also have ‘back-up food’ available in case they wanted to do something spontaneous”, she says.
National charitable organisation Allergy New Zealand believes the study will help generate an enhanced knowledge of food allergies. “Helping people understand how their personality traits might help or hinder their management of food allergy could improve their quality of life,” says Mark Dixon, Chief Executive of Allergy New Zealand.