Food-Allergic Swimmers: What’s the Best Way to Manage Them?


Food allergy illustration.By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Will was an 8-year-old swimmer and new to the sport. His mom was excited to have him experience the joys of being on a team and benefit from the rigor and structure that swimming provided. However, she was alarmed at Will’s first swim meet when she saw an abundance of food circulating throughout the stands, the bleachers and on deck. Will was highly allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and milk. To see peanut butter cups, candy with unknown ingredients, and hot dogs made her very nervous and fearful of an allergic reaction.

What’s the risk to swimmers with food allergies?

There’s no doubt the risk for an allergic reaction exists for food-allergic swimmers, but mostly the risk occurs outside the pool, such as around the concession stand where cross-contamination to other allergens can occur, or in the bleachers where swimmers are more likely to share food or touch each other. For example, when a swimmer shares a milk-based beverage with another swimmer who is allergic to milk, a reaction may occur.

In terms of allergens being passed in the pool, I consulted Dr. Scott Sicherer, a food allergy expert, Professor of Pediatrics and researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai in New York and author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide to Eating When Your Life Depends on It (Johns Hopkins Press). “The dilution factor in the pool should reduce any significant risks,” said Dr. Sicherer. “So, in general, I do not advise typical food-allergic patients to avoid swimming.”

With an average of 5% of all American children having a food allergy, consideration must be given to those who may experience a food allergy reaction, in any public situation. If there are food-allergic swimmers on the team, greater awareness of allergens and safe food practices, including not sharing food or beverages, washing hands after eating, putting food away when done eating (trash can or re-wrapping), and keeping concession stand surfaces clean should be observed.

Then there’s the question of what can food-allergic swimmers eat for snacks?

The answer to this question will vary based on the food allergy. There are eight common food allergens representing most food allergies seen in children and adults. They are: milk, soy, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, fish and shellfish. Swimmers allergic to any one of these, or multiple allergens, must avoid them, whether they occur overtly in foods (nuts in trail mix) or are included in the production of foods (milk ingredients in a cereal bar).

Avoidance isn’t easy, and being a master at reading food labels helps deter accidental ingestion. For resources detailing each of the eight allergens, where they are found, and their common ingredient names, go to or  

Here are some allergen-free ideas for providing food allergic swimmers with nutrient-rich snacks and meals: 

  • Make milk- and soy-free smoothies or milkshakes with a base of coconut milk or hemp milk, coconut yogurt, frozen fruit and 100% fruit juice. 
  • Instead of peanut or other nut butters, use Sunbutter (made from sunflower seeds) or WOW butter (made from soy beans). 
  • Many wheat-free (also available as gluten-free) products are available on the market as well as wheat-free flour mixes. Bob’s Red Mill has a variety of flour substitutes and mixes available. 
  • In recipes, substitute 1 cup of water or 100% juice for milk. Try other milk substitutes (rice, soy, hemp, coconut, nut, or oat milks) in recipes for milk-free baking and cooking. 
  • For each egg, substitute 1 ½ Tablespoon of water, 1 ½ tablespoon of oil and 1 teaspoon of baking powder. Multiply this substitution mix for up to 3 eggs. 
  • Maximize every bite—make it nutritious, delicious, calorie-dense and allergen-free. 
  • Offer meals and snacks every 3 to 4 hours to assure a continual supply of fuel for the athlete.
  • When operating the concession stand or banquet room, label allergen-free foods if possible. 

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. She is the creator of Just The Right Byte, a childhood nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Questions? Contact her at  

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