Food allergies are a major pain … Inconvenient, illness-causing, and incongruent with our mainstream methods of food production and consumption.
But I, for one, am grateful for food allergies. They changed (and likely saved) my life, by completely altering my relationship with food.
Growing up with a mother and grandmother who are amazing cooks made my early life easy when it came to food. I didn’t have to think about what I was putting into my body. They cooked and we ate, no questions asked. We never went hungry, and as a child that’s about the extent to which I was concerned with food.
Then I moved away for college. Like many young people on their own for the first time, my eating habits consisted of fast food, pizza, and cheap boxed meals (mac and cheese, mmm) that were easy to prepare at home. I wasn’t interested in cooking, and didn’t really allow myself time to learn anyway. There was too much fun to be had in college that in no way included healthy meals.
Upon graduating I decided it was time to allow my eating habits to “mature.” Even though I was cooking more, my repertoire still included a lot of prepackaged and frozen foods. A typical meal might include a steak, a (pre-made, frozen) potato product, and a pasta or vegetable smothered with cheese. I was a spaghetti-making master and grilled cheese connoisseur. All with extra cheese, please.
Not long after leaving college, my health began to decline. I was frequently sick, and even when I wasn’t physically ill I just didn’t feel right. At first I attributed these developments to lack of exercise. In college I walked everywhere, everyday. I was also a member of the drumline, which helped keep me fit and moving. So my sudden lack of movement seemed like a reasonable explanation for some of my symptoms. I bought a bike. I began walking more (which was significantly easier than driving in Washington, D.C. anyway). I bought some fitness DVDs, and actually used them. And it all helped a little, for a while. But then I began having asthma attacks. Serious ones. So I decided it was time to find a doctor and get checked out.
Enter: The food allergies. My doc took blood samples for allergy tests, and the results turned my world upside down. No wonder I was sick. I was allergic to (are you ready for this?): Wheat, beef, dairy, yeast, eggs, corn, soy, peanuts, and chocolate. And those are just the food allergies. Other itch-inducing things included grasses, pollens, cats, dogs, horses, molds and dust.
I wondered if I should look into renting myself a plastic bubble to permanently reside in.
My doc assured me that everything would be OK, no bubble necessary. She put me on a host of anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids for my lungs to control the asthma attacks, and several high-power antihistamines. She also put me on a high-dose regimen of various vitamins. Then she dropped the big bomb: Stop eating all of the things on my allergy list immediately and completely. Come back in three months for a check up.
Are you nuts?!? Three months is a long time without pizza. And chocolate.
I tried to be optimistic … But then I started reading labels. Up until that point in my life, I had no idea that corn and soy are in everything. There is scarcely a processed product on the shelves that doesn’t include at least one of these ingredients or their by-products (corn syrup, corn starch, soybean oil, etc.)
So I wasn’t just giving up pizza and chocolate. I was giving up every single thing I had ever eaten and enjoyed.
I felt like I was living in a nightmare. I cried a lot. I cursed my doctor a lot. But I did it. I quit eating all those things entirely, for three whole, tortuous months. Then three turned to six. And six turned to nine. In that time I learned to leave my food comfort zone. I tried new and interesting meats, grains, fruits, and veggies. I had to learn how to prepare foods for myself and make things from scratch, to ensure no soy terrorists or corn miscreants were sneaking into my diet. I searched for recipes and recipe alternatives. I became an enthusiastic supporter of organic products and a veritable food and nutrition expert: Researching food obsessively and gradually becoming aware of what I had been doing to myself.
I hadn’t just been eating pizza. I had been poisoning my body.
After nine months of reinventing my entire food philosophy I felt better. I lost a lot of weight. At the end of three months I was off all the drugs. At the end of six months I got the OK to reintroduce chocolate (as long as there was no dairy, corn or soy additives, of course, which is nearly impossible to find). And by the end of nine months the food allergies were gone. Erased. Extinct. Eradicated. I now had my doctor’s blessing to slowly reintroduce any and all foods back into my life. All the foods I first loved and then shunned are now a (smaller) part of my balanced, healthy, and largely organic diet.
The moral of the story? Our bodies are amazing biological machines. If you take care of them, they will take care of you. But if you don’t, they make you give up chocolate.
So play nice.