Reinventing Your Diet
Life after being diagnosed with a food allergy.
by Samaya Jones
It seems as though more and more people are dealing with food allergies and intolerances, if not full-blown food-related diseases. From celiac disease and diabetes to chronic digestive disorders and allergy symptoms, the food we eat seems to be a big part of the problem.
In some cases, there is a diagnosis from the doctor, and specific instructions about sugar, dairy, gluten and other foods. In other cases, people are suffering from digestive problems and don't know what to do about it.
There is a fairly simple process of elimination that you can try. First, consider whether there are any food intolerances in your family. Some of these things are genetically transmitted.
One very common one is dairy foods. Try not eating anything that comes from cow's milk for a few days and see if that helps. If you want to take it further, you can try eliminating goat and sheep milk products, too. This means milk, ice cream, sour cream, yogurt and cheese of all kinds.
Some substitutes you can try are: almond milk and coconut milk; if you are not grain-sensitive, rice and oat milks; if you can handle soy products such as tofu and all kinds of Asian products with soy sauce in them, try soy milk. There are some very good alternative coffee creamers made from coconut and soy.
Watch out for non-dairy cheeses, however, because they sometimes have whey (which comes from cow's milk!) or other ingredients that people with sensitive digestion don't handle well.
If there's one thing to take away here, it's READ LABELS, and educate yourself about what these ingredients are that are not part of the regular English language.
Another food intolerance that is becoming very prevalent is gluten. Gluten is the protein in wheat that makes the bread we all love have such great texture and lift. But it can cause havoc with not only digestion, but the immune system as well. When the digestive system is damaged (from years of eating food that the body cannot assimilate), "leaky gut syndrome" can develop, when food particles pass into the bloodstream and are seen by the immune system as foreign. So the immune system is in "on" mode full-time fighting these renegade nutrients in our own bodies.
Fortunately, there are lots of gluten-free products hitting the market. But they can be expensive, and you can make your own. Find a good book with instructions and recipes. The basis of gluten-free baking is usually rice flour with added starches, such as tapioca, corn or potato. The starches are needed to get the dough to hang together in the absence of gluten. So beware — gluten-free products can have high calorie counts. The other ingredient that is needed with gluten-free baking is xanthan gum, which also helps hold the dough together. The outcomes are different from what we are used to with wheat, so keep an open mind and learn to appreciate some new flavors and textures.
Another food sensitivity is to particular starches. Some people cannot assimilate complex carbohydrates, specifically polysaccharides. This includes: all grains (even whole grains), all flours, pasta, crackers, and high-starch vegetables such as potatoes and beans. There is a protocol called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet that one can read about online. It is quite enlightening to those of us who thought we were dealing with gluten intolerance, but found that gluten-free foods are not the solution.
Finally, a word about sugar. Everyone should be watching this, not just diabetics. Americans' intake of sugar has increased by magnitudes in the last 50 years, and 40% of that intake is in the form of sweet soda drinks. How easy it is to eliminate this culprit: Buy some sugar-free fruit juice (you have to read the labels) and add sparkling water. Bingo!
There are some good sugar alternatives now, including stevia, which comes from a plant leaf, and agave nectar, which comes from the agave plant. Both are lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, honey and maple syrup.
It may be worth trying a multi-enzyme supplement to take with meals. There are different enzymes for each class of food: fats, carbohydrates, proteins, sugars, etc. And there are lots of resources: books, the Internet, natural food and herb stores, and local people with similar problems.
Some secondary benefits to coming to terms with these issues often include improved health and weight loss. Keep in mind that there may be real medical disorders underlying these problems, such as hypothyroidism, immune diseases, mineral and hormone imbalances, and structural conditions such as ulcers, so it's a good idea to start with your doc. A hair analysis can provide a lot of information about one's nutritional condition, and provide a baseline for developing healing strategies.
Some general guidelines about digestion are:
- Chew well. Digestion begins with the enzymes in the mouth.
- Don't overeat — this taxes the digestive system.
- Don't drink excessive fluids with meals — this dilutes stomach enzymes needed for digestion.
- Keep the gut flora healthy by taking probiotics, either in supplement form or food form (yogurt, kefir, and some tasty new probiotic drinks).
- Try to eat in a relaxed atmosphere, and not too close to bedtime.
- Watch food combining. For instance, fruit for dessert sits on top of protein and fiber foods that take longer to digest, and can ferment, causing, well, you know — fermentation produces gases as a byproduct.
A word about antacids. As we age, we produce less of the hydrochloric acid (HCl) in the stomach that we need to digest food. Antacids reduce that even more. So if you're having reflux, there may be approaches other than HCl reduction that can be considered.
Finally, if at all possible, improve the quality of food that you eat, avoiding the artificial and processed "food" that we are inundated with. These contain substances that our bodies don't know how to process.
It's hard to go wrong with the suggestion of Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma and other important books about the state of food in the world today: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much."
Keeping a food diary can be a brutally honest revelation. Note everything you eat or drink in a day, and also note any reactions. This is the best way to track what you are really eating, and what might be the source of the problems.
See you in the aisles with a magnifying glass, attempting to read those labels!
Samaya Jones is a natural foods private chef, specializing in restricted diets, living in Silver City. She can help meal plan, shop and teach; cook for you in your home; and lead structured wine tastings. She has a background in nutritional science, has written for websites and newspapers, has a degree in wine from Napa Valley College and taught wine education classes. Catch her new radio show, "All About Food," on KOOT 88.1 FM on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. She can be reached at email@example.com.