What CAN You Eat?
If you have food allergies or intolerances, it's time to get creative.
by Samaya Jones
Last month we looked at various digestive issues, information about food intolerances, some preventive measures and general guidelines ("Reinventing Your Diet," May). Now, down to the dirt: What CAN you eat?
It can seem daunting, but think back to earlier times when there was not so much fast, processed food available. People ate real food, and they cooked. Cooking is an engaging avocation. Witness the plethora of food shows on cable TV. Ethnic cuisines are a good place to start, because most countries haven't bastardized their food system the way the US has, so indigenous foods are still mainstream, and — no surprise — they are generally healthier than we are. (Unless, that is, we have introduced our agricultural methods and "surplus" food into their culture.)
Anyway, as Roseanne Rosannadanna would say, if it's not one thing it's another. Which is pretty much the story when figuring out what works for you. If there's one thing I've discovered in 40 years of nutritional pursuits (starting with macrobiotics in 1971), everyone is truly different. Genetically. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another. So, it's worth checking out what other people have discovered and seeing if it fits you. It may not.
Let's start with dairy intolerance. It helps to know if the problem is lactose, the milk sugar, or casein, the milk protein. If it's the former, you are lacking lactase, which is available in pill form and can be taken just before ingesting the dairy product. I tend to think that if the body doesn't want it, however, trying to fool it might not be a good idea. If the problem is casein, then you can not only not digest cow's milk, but other mammal milk products as well (goat and sheep, buffalo).
In any case, this problem is the simplest to deal with because there are so many wonderful alternatives, in the forms of milk, creamer, yogurt, ice cream, cream cheese, sour cream, cheese and margarine. Because most soy is GM (genetically modified), buying organic is safest. The watchword here is whey, which is a byproduct of cow's milk cheese production, and is used widely in the food industry. You have to READ LABELS.
Next, gluten, the protein in wheat that makes it elastic and makes wheat bread so desirable. There is another protein, gliadin, a component of gluten, which is often problematic, and the disappointment here is that oats, which so many people eat for breakfast, contain gliadin, though not gluten. So you have to try it, or get a blood test to see if you are sensitive to it. With regard to tests for food allergies, however, I have to point out that they are not always reliable.
So, what can the gluten-intolerant person eat? Not wheat, rye, barley, pumpernickel, and perhaps not the ancient forms of wheat such as spelt, faro, emmer, einkorn, durum. Gluten is a stabilizer, and is therefore found in processed foods such as imitation meats, ketchup, ice cream, mustard, soups and sauces, salad dressings, soy sauce, malt, candy and lots more.
Alternatives to gluten are becoming widely available, but usually are heavy on added starches such as tapioca, corn, rice and potato. If you have starch sensitivity (next topic), beware. I have found that it's better to buy the gluten-free flours and bake for myself. Rice flour is usually the base, and other flours such as sorghum, oat if you can do oats, quinoa, amaranth and millet can be added. Xanthan gum is the binding agent in lieu of gluten. There are some great ready-made products that are nut and seed based. And you can create some fabulous things without wheat, like cheesecake, muffins, cookies, even crackers!
That is, unless you have the next biggie: inability to digest starches. Well, specific starches, namely polysaccharides. Our bodies run on glucose, which is a monosaccharide. In fact, the digestion process breaks apart polysaccharides into glucose — if it is working properly. But some people have a condition that involves imbalance of microbes in the gut, and resulting excess mucus, which blocks that process. So the complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) do not get broken apart, but remain in the digestive tract creating holy havoc. Further, the walls of the intestinal tract are usually damaged (the villi that absorb nutrients get worn) so that even the monosaccharides are not well assimilated. The fix is to avoid all polysaccharides until the gut is well healed.
What does that mean? All grains, beans (including soy products), corn, all sugars except honey, most dairy products, potatoes, and many hidden sources such as processed foods, seaweed, stevia, baking powder and cocoa (damn). What is allowed: meat, poultry and fish, most vegetables (not canned), fruit (fresh or frozen), eggs, homemade yogurt, nuts, honey. That's a lot to work with, and one can eat very well from this list. In addition, here's a great opportunity to break the sugar addiction and probably lose some weight.
If you've tried everything and are still having problems, I suggest checking out the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. Search for it on the web and you'll get the official website of the woman who developed it. Actually, the condition and remedy have been around for quite a while and are well-documented in the medical world, but this person brought it to light again, and updated it.
One final thought: genetically modified foods (GMs) are widespread and may have inundated the food chain. Almost all soy and corn are GM. Lots of other crops are right behind them. The problem is that either we eat the food directly, or animals are fed it and we eat the animals, and it appears that these organisms affect the normal microbial environment in the gut. It is hard to get good data because the molecules are hard to track, and because opposition research is suppressed. But remember that a large part of our immune system originates in the gut, so many of the apparent food allergies, which are often an immune-system response to suspected proteins and sugars, may be, in fact, GM-related. The answer at this point is to buy organic, and grow your own.
So, how to make this fun? Start gardening to grow some of your own beautiful vegetables. Then you'll want to eat them! Go to the farmers' market regularly. Have dinner parties where the participants all understand the underlying dietary guidelines. Dry wine (no residual sugar left from the fermentation process) is allowed! Catch a food show on TV now and then — some of them are fascinating, especially the food science-related and ethnically oriented ones. Flip through some colorful cookbooks for ideas. You might have to make modifications, and that's the creative part.
Finally, if you're just not into it, work with someone who can help you map out what you can eat, take you shopping and provide a running dialog of the foods you encounter, and then teach you to cook, or cook for you regularly. Yours truly does all that.
If you have questions or comments, I'd like to hear from you.
Samaya Jones is a natural foods private chef in Silver City, specializing in restricted diets, who 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.