Food choices and needs

All human beings are unique and we all eat and drink different things. Let's find out why...

Why do we all eat different food?

Advances in food production mean that we have a huge variety of food and drink to choose from. What we eat and drink is known as our diet.

Many people have special dietary requirements. This is a diet that contains or misses out specific foods. Diets can vary for a range of reasons including:

  • allergies, intolerances or health issues
  • religious beliefs
  • cultural choices

Food allergies

The immune system defends our bodies from bacteria and viruses. It tries to prevent us from getting really unwell and helps us get better if we become ill.

A food allergy is when our immune system has an extreme reaction to eating a particular food.

  • Some food allergies can be dangerous.
  • Some symptoms of a food allergy are swelling, itching or difficulty breathing and swallowing.
  • People with a food allergy must be careful to avoid that food to stay safe and feel well.
  • People can be allergic to a whole range of different things.
  • The most common food allergies are milk, nuts, eggs, fish (especially shellfish) and gluten.
  • Luckily, if you have a food allergy there are lots of other options.

Milk allergy

Being allergic to milk is quite common. Many products we eat are made from dairy milk, like cheese, butter or ice-cream. Dairy milk is a source of calcium that we need to have strong bones.

There are lots of dairy-free options for people who can't eat them. Some examples include milk made from different plants such as soy, almond, coconut or oat. Lots of dairy-free foods have extra calcium added.

Gluten allergy

Many people have an allergy to gluten. Gluten is a protein which can be found in grains like wheat and rye.

Lots of our everyday foods that are made with flour, like bread, biscuits and pasta, contain gluten. Many of these foods can be made using different grains and you can now buy gluten-free alternatives.

A gluten allergy is different from a gluten intolerance or coeliac disease.

Peanut allergy

People who are allergic to peanuts must avoid eating them. Some people must also avoid contact with peanuts in any way.

If eating in a restaurant, they need to make sure that peanuts have not been prepared near their food and that the food hasn't been cooked in peanut oil. Peanut oil is sometimes called groundnut oil. They must keep their distance from other people eating peanuts if it is a severe allergy.

Common allergies

Bottle of almond milk


People who cannot drink dairy milk can drink plant-based milk instead. For example, we can make milk from almonds.

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Food intolerances

A food intolerance is different from a food allergy (when your immune system takes an extreme reaction to food).

Food intolerances are less serious. They will not cause life threatening symptoms. They can affect digestion and cause uncomfortable symptoms like headaches or bloating.

A food intolerance usually means you should eat less of that food rather than having to completely avoid it.

Coeliac disease

People with coeliac disease must be very careful not to eat gluten. Coeliac disease causes your immune system to damage your intestines when you eat any gluten. This can be very painful and can stop your body absorbing nutrients properly.

It is very important that people with coeliac disease don't eat food that has been contaminated with gluten when it is processed, cooked or served.

Religious beliefs

People who follow a religion usually have a specific set of beliefs. Some of those beliefs might change the type of food you eat. For example:

  • Kosher is a set of rules about how to prepare and eat food following Jewish teachings found in the Torah. For example, kosher food does not include pork or any shellfish. Meat has to be prepared in particular ways and dairy and meat products have to be kept completely separate.
  • Halal is the name given to foods that are allowed according to Islam. Some foods need to be prepared and eaten in a certain way following Islamic teachings found in the Qur'an.
  • Many Hindus avoid eating beef as part of their beliefs.
Some religious beliefs affect the food you can eat. Muslims eat halal foods, which have been prepared according to guidelines in the Qur'an.

Cultural choices

Culture (a common set of ideas or values) can also influence our diet choices.

Many people choose to follow a specific diet for a whole range of reasons, including protecting the environment and animal welfare.

Common examples include:

  • Vegetarians don't eat meat. They will usually still eat other animal products, like dairy or eggs.
  • Vegans don't eat meat or any food product that has come from an animal, like cheese and milk.
  • Pescatarians do not eat meat but eat fish and other animal products.

Try this true or false quiz to test your knowledge of special dietary requirements.


Following a specific diet can have challenges. For example, having a food allergy can be difficult as it can be tricky to find safe things to eat, especially when eating out.

Menus should have lots of detail to show what is contained in dishes. Often there are labels to help people make decisions based on their needs and choices, such as:

  • V to show if items are vegetarian
  • GF to show if the item is gluten-free

Can you design a menu for someone with special dietary requirements?

There's more to learn...

This guide
Dietary needs basket for Primary Food guide

Food choices and needs