I'm incredibly food-conscious. I need to know exactly what I'm eating.
No, I'm not on some new fad diet. I'm not watching my weight or trying to gain muscles.
I have 21 different food allergies.
Yes, you read that right -- 21.
When I was five, I learned the hard way that I was allergic to pecans. Over the next few years, I discovered that this allergy wasn't just pecans but that it extended to all tree nuts.
When I was 11, my family and I thought I was lactose intolerant. Every time I would eat something with dairy in it, I would spend the rest of the day in the bathroom. Lucky for me, there were pills for that: Lactaid. You could take the lactase enzyme when your body stopped replacing it. It didn't always work, but I chalked that up to eating more lactose than I had the enzymes to break down. This didn't stop me from eating whatever I wanted, so long as it didn't include nuts.
“No, I'm not on some new fad diet. I'm not watching my weight or trying to gain muscles. I have 21 different food allergies.”
I didn't realize it at the time, as I was in my tween years, but something wasn't right. I constantly had stomach pain and would go to the hospital about once every six months for fear that my appendix had burst or something else was terribly wrong.
When I moved out of my parents' house, I was in total control of what I ate. My diet didn't depend on what was in the fridge. Sometimes I watched what I ate and took note of what happened, and other times I couldn't be bothered to care. I suppose I got by, though I missed several classes because of pain and digestive issues.
However, after a couple of years, the chronic pain got to a point where I couldn't handle it. I nearly dropped out of college fall semester of senior year because the pain was so bad. I went to a gastroenterologist and she told me I had something called Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It was basically medical speak for, “We don't know what's wrong, but we recognize you have some sort of digestive disorder."
“After a couple of years, the chronic pain got to a point where I couldn't handle it. I nearly dropped out of college fall semester of senior year because the pain was so bad.”
While this diagnosis was rather frustrating, others with a similar diagnosis found certain foods triggered the condition while others helped manage it. I started to make changes to my diet and noticed a little bit of relief. But I still suffered from more pain than I thought was normal, so I kept looking for solutions.
Later that year, I learned about The Elimination Diet. In order to identify triggering foods, I took everything out of my diet except for rice, lamb, pears, and lentils for four days. After those four days, I reintroduced food groups, starting with some of the least likely to cause reactions and ending with the more complex foods. This process took me a couple of months of painful trial and error, but afterward I discovered I had a problem with sweet potatoes, dairy, and a number of seeds. Worst of all was my reaction to gluten.
This was by far the hardest part of my experience. I had gotten used to eating a certain way, and gluten was in almost everything I ate. For weeks, I felt like I couldn't eat anything while staying away from my trigger foods. But somehow I did, and my life was the better for it.
Looking back, that was one of the healthiest years of my life. I had more energy, felt less pain and was probably the fittest I've been since moving out of my parents' house.
But then Christmas happened. And with Christmas came all of the holiday treats full of allergens. I stayed away from nuts, but everything else was fair game. I wasn't used to having to stay away from so many things when they were all right in front of me, and I didn’t have the willpower to stay away from them.
I didn't do much about my allergies for the next few years. I graduated college and tried to figure out what I was doing with my life. But then I met someone who was suffering from a thyroid condition and she mentioned her doctors did a blood test to see what she was allergic to. This was the first I had heard about blood tests to identify allergies, so I checked it out.
Once I found a doctor that would conduct such tests, I discovered the situation wasn't quite what I thought it was. The tests came back showing my allergies to nuts, but then they also showed I was allergic to milk, egg whites, cranberries, crab, and a few seeds.
I was in denial. There was no way I was allergic to milk and eggs. Those were in a lot of the foods I ate, and I didn't think I'd had a problem with them.
“The tests came back showing my allergies to nuts, but then they also showed I was allergic to milk, egg whites, cranberries, crab, and a few seeds.”
Despite thinking I was lactose intolerant, it was a shock to discover I was allergic to milk. Having an allergy to something is not the same as having an intolerance to something. An allergy is when your immune system misidentifies a food you eat as a pathogen or dangerous substance and reacts in order to try to attack the intruder. An intolerance is when your body has a hard time processing something because it doesn't have the enzymes or bacteria necessary to break it down. Allergies can cause inflammation throughout your body, breathing difficulties, and in severe cases death, while intolerances usually result in long bathroom visits.
It took me another few months to accept my diagnosis and work toward eliminating these foods from my diet. But when my intestinal pain got so bad I thought I might have to go to the hospital, I decided enough was enough. I looked up ways to substitute milk and egg whites. I found suitable vegan substitutes and learned to cook with those. When I went to family gatherings, I made sure I knew what was on the table ahead of time and offered to bring something along. You won't find cow's milk in my fridge, nor will you find nuts or seeds in my cupboards. I still keep eggs around, because I can still do a fair amount with the yolks.
Avoiding so many types of food is difficult, sometimes it feels impossible. But when I think about it, I have two options. I can either spend time in the kitchen or in the bathroom, but either way, that time will be spent.
I'm still learning how to work around my allergies. I have to question every dish placed before me to make sure it's safe for consumption.
Sometimes I mess up.
Sometimes I think it’s not worth the hassle and don't bother checking what's in my food. And every time, I regret it.
Now that I know what my trigger foods are, when I take the time to avoid them and eat only allergen-free foods, my life is better for it. I don't have to miss hanging out with friends or meetings with clients because I'm throwing up or curled up in pain. My stomach doesn't swell until it looks like it's about to burst, and I don't have to worry my throat closing up.
“When I think about it, I have two options. I can either spend time in the kitchen or in the bathroom, but either way, that time will be spent.”
Yes, it is a pain to avoid so many foods, especially when I see an asiago bagel slathered in cream cheese. There are times when I think eating the foods I long for are worth the pain I'll go through later. But I’m constantly learning that the benefits of living healthy and pain free are greater than the temporary gratification of any food.
Do you suffer from food allergies? How do you cope with them? Do you think you might have a food allergy, but aren't sure how to identify it? Tell me your story in the comments. I'd love to hear from you!