Traits in food allergies studied

Dr Tamlin Conner, of the University of Otago, has been researching aspects of managing food allergies, including to milk products. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Dr Tamlin Conner, of the University of Otago, has been researching aspects of managing food allergies, including to milk products. Photo: Peter McIntosh
University of Otago research has revealed some surprising findings about how New Zealanders with different personality traits respond to food allergies.

Tamlin Conner, of the psychology department, is the lead author of the study, which is believed to be the first to show how their respective personality traits affect people living with a food allergy, including to nuts, milk and fish.

The single most surprising finding was that people with neurotic traits did not have more frequent food allergy issues, or poorer mood on days with more allergy issues, Dr Conner said.

The study showed the ''open personality'', that craved ''exploration, variety and novel experiences'', was ''the biggest predictor of more issues'' in managing allergies.

These issues 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''.

It appeared that the demands of coping with a food allergy requiring ''caution, routine and consumption of known foods'' might directly conflict with the open personality, she said.

Her ''really fundamental hope'' was that the research might prove useful for some people living with food allergies.

The interdisciplinary research, just published in the international journal Frontiers in Psychology, also involved Otago food science department researchers Dr Rana Peniamina, Dr Miranda Mirosa and Prof Phil Bremer.

They wanted to investigate the challenges that adults with food allergies faced in managing their condition, and if certain personality traits made these challenges even greater.

The study investigated if individual differences in the big five personality traits - neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness - were related to food allergy-related problems.

For two weeks, 108 adults with a medically diagnosed food allergy completed a comprehensive daily online survey, including stress and mood.

Allergy New Zealand chief executive Mark Dixon welcomed the Otago study, and said that helping people understand how their personality traits might help or hinder their allergy management ''could improve their quality of life''.

Allergy New Zealand, a national charitable organisation, said that solid food allergy prevalence data for New Zealand was not available, but international estimates suggested it was likely to be about 5% of the overall population, and up to 10% in children under the age of 5.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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