Three years ago food and I became sworn enemies. I lived the first 25 years of my life eating whatever I wanted whenever I felt like it without consequence but suddenly, in the midst of grad school, I found myself suffering from terrible stomach pain. There is a history of Crohn’s disease in my family and I began to wonder if I would be the next victim of this terrible illness. It didn’t seem to matter what I ate, I ended up in agony. My doctors all said it was “irritable bowel” which I suspect is a catch-all phrase for “we don’t actually know what’s wrong with you and there’s no treatment.”
The fact that my digestive system was irritable was a no brainer. In fact it was beyond irritated — it was on a psychotic rampage. No one would test me for Crohn’s disease despite the family history. Skin prick tests for allergies came up negative. I saw at least six doctors over the course of a year and no one had answers. Some suggested that the problem was in my head. I was exhausted, sick, and fearful that I would spend the rest of my life in pain.
Finally I went to see a naturopath, and even though I was initially skeptical the visit changed my life. My naturopathic doctor immediately suspected food (even though allopathic doctors had dismissed the possibility). As it turns out mainstream allergy tests only check for the immune antibody responsible for anaphylaxis-type responses. They don’t test for milder immune responses that, while not implicated in immediate death, can still cause massive long-term damage and short-term discomfort. So I was put on an elimination diet to see if I was intolerant to any foods.
I wouldn’t wish an elimination diet on anyone. My daily food choices were limited to a small selection of vegetables, one fruit a day, salmon, chicken, and rice. I wasn’t allowed to eat any red meat, gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, shellfish, nuts, sugar, starchy vegetables, tomatoes, or acidic fruits. I pretty much resigned myself to starving to death and preparing endless meals that tasted like plain popcorn mixed with sawdust and Styrofoam.
My husband likes to tell of the evening when I prepared a dinner of fish with a bland pesto sauce and broccoli. The result was an entire plate of food that was a uniform shade of green and tasted as much like algae as it looked. But I stuck it out, mainly due to the support and encouragement of my husband who himself is intolerant to gluten and dairy.
After a six-week stint on the very restricted diet, I was allowed to slowly add foods back in. It took almost a year of trial and error to figure out that I had problems with eggs, dairy, and gluten. And it’s taken another year to be okay with that. The initial deprivation was difficult to bear. Watching other people eat cake was a special kind of torture. I missed all my favourite foods and spent a long time eating a steady diet of rice cakes, almond butter, and bananas.
Now, two years in to my new diet I’ve started to adapt and have found that I love food even more than I did before the restrictions. I appreciate flavours more, I spend more time preparing meals and am more aware of how I am nourishing my body. I’ve tried foods I hadn’t even heard of — like artichokes, dragon fruit, and almond milk. As hard as it was, the elimination diet was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Not only did I regain control of my health I discovered the strength of my own willpower and have morphed into a creative and curious chef who doesn’t shy away from experimentation.
There are more and more resources out there for people struggling with food allergies and intolerances. My life was made miles better after discovering the Gluten Free Goddess, who runs a blog showcasing incredible desserts and recipes that tend to be egg, dairy, gluten, soy, and nut free. Over the past two years I’ve found new ways to eat and new ways to relate to food. I’m happy to report that there’s hope for people suffering from food allergies and intolerances. Alternative foods are more abundant and while the transition period can be hell on earth life on the other side can be delicious and heavenly.
“Carrot Love” © Andrea Paterson, 2010. All Rights Reserved.