GUEST BLOG by Rose Marie Randall, a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and author of The Nine Biggest Problem Foods and How to Live Without Them – the cookbook which features recipes which features recipes that are all free of gluten (including wheat), dairy products, sugar (and artificial sweeteners), corn, yeast, eggs, soy, peanuts, and processed fats and oils. Her latest book, Affordable Nutrition, features recipes and remedies for people with food sensitivities who are short on Money and Time. Visit her at rorboooks.ca.
(The views and opinions expressed in a guest blog are those of the author, and are not necessarily reflective of Dr. Gannage’s own opinions.)
Only a few short decades ago, our culture’s consciousness of food intolerances was basically limited to life-threatening anaphylactic reactions such as the rare, but dreaded, peanut allergy. Not only are these types of allergies becoming more common, but more subtle food sensitivities that can disrupt life and erode its quality, rather than actually end it, have become unbelievably widespread. Now it’s almost normal for people to notice improved feelings of wellness when avoiding food that our forefathers ate all their lives without incident.
While we improve the health of our bodies and our planet by supporting local organic agriculture, reduce the number of chemical pollutants in our lives, and reduce our bodies’ toxic load through regular detoxification, we can take immediate action to minimize the impact of food intolerances. As a sufferer of food sensitivities whose condition eventually led me to become a Certified Nutritional Practitioner, I first had to come up with ways to deal with my own food-related challenges. I now share what I’ve learned with those whose needs reflect my own. What follows are seven key strategies I’ve distilled from my own experience.
- Become familiar with your own symptoms.
The most obvious, easiest-to-identify are the reactions which can show up within a few minutes to a few hours of eating the offensive food. Digestive symptoms (bloating, diarrhea, nausea, constipation), respiratory involvement (runny nose or stuffy sinuses, wheezing or asthmatic symptoms), or skin reactions (including short-term hives or chronic rashes, dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis,). But also look for more subtle symptoms that may not usually be attributed to food sensitivities: feeling inexplicably sad, irritated, or even elated or giddy; increased anxiety, feeling hyper or unable to focus or think clearly; headaches; subtle changes in handwriting, dexterity, and speech; joint pain; water retention; even accelerated heart rate, or an uncomfortable awareness of your heart beating may all be clues that you’re dealing with a sensitivity. Strong cravings for a particular food may also indicate an allergy to that food. And be aware that symptoms can present themselves up to three days after the offending food has been ingested. If it’s something you eat all the time, you may not even know that what you normally feel is actually a temporary symptom, until you’ve cut that food out of your diet.
- Identify your sensitivities.
The allergist’s skin-prick tests deal with the type of immunity that governs reactions to inhaled and contact allergies and may not be very helpful at identifying most food intolerances. There are a couple of ways you can go about determining which foods you are reacting to. A good starting point before you make any changes to your diet is a food journal. Carry a small notepad around with you and write down everything you eat for a few weeks, as well as how you feel, and see if you can notice any cause-and-effect patterns between symptoms and foods eaten. You can then proceed to what I’d call a subtractive elimination method: you subtract one food at a time from your diet (start with a common offender, such as wheat or dairy, or anything your food journal has revealed to be a problem), and notice any changes after a week or two without that food. If you are still bothered by symptoms, subtract another food and repeat. Another way (which may be faster but will require a lot more discipline, as your food choices will be severely limited) is what I call an ‘add-back elimination method’: take out ALL common food allergens for a week or two (gluten grains, dairy products, corn, eggs, peanuts, yeast, soy products, shellfish, citrus fruit, tomatoes, strawberries, and chocolate), or you might prefer to eat a very limited, hypoallergenic diet of lamb, brown rice, and green vegetables for a week, or even fast for a few days (those who are underweight, pregnant, nursing, children, or who have serious health problems should fast only with qualified health guidance, if at all). After this initial elimination period, slowly add foods back one at a time and gauge any reaction. An experienced nutritionist can help with this process.
- Identify the foods and meals you like and why you like them.
Sit down and pinpoint specific aspects of the foods you or your family members like, such as flavour and texture. Then try to find less-allergenic ways to match them. For example, making porridge with quinoa flakes instead of oats will deliver a similar satisfying taste and feel; almond, rice, hemp, or coconut milk can provide creamy drinks for those who miss dairy or soy milk; and toasted sunflower seeds can provide that crunchy texture for the chip-nibblers in your life.
- Identify your greatest obstacles:
those things that might sabotage your ability to stay away from your trigger foods and stick to a less allergenic eating plan. The most common I hear when coaching those with food sensitivities involves issues around time and convenience. If this is your bane, pick recipes and meals that are quick and simple. Temptation is another common saboteur. I always say that in the battle between willpower and biochemistry, biochemistry will usually win. If you’re addicted to the foods you’re trying to avoid (which is rather common), you had better be prepared for some moments of weakness. Planning ahead is really both the best time-saver and temptation-buster: have only healthy foods on hand, wash fruits and veggies as soon as you get home so they’re ready to go, and have some quick emergency snacks around at all times. If taste is an issue, don’t stop searching until you find healthy foods you love. They are out there! Also keep in mind that your tastes and cravings will change once you’re no longer comparing the subtle flavours of wholesome foods to the super-stimulating blasts of sugar and salt that dominate processed foods. If cost is your stumbling block, go for from-scratch foods rather than prepared ones. Milk alternatives, spreads, dressings, gluten-free bread, pasta, cereal, crackers – although so many of the products in health food stores are fine from a sensitivity perspective, they do tend to be pricey. But you don’t have to be wealthy to be healthy! Your best bet for cost and health are whole grains, legumes, and local, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Economize without sacrificing nutrition by buying certain produce frozen vs. fresh (such as peas and berries). Planning ahead, shopping with a list (and not shopping hungry) are other budget-saving practices. And extend your fish and meat budget by incorporating these foods into several recipes, rather making them the focal point (e.g. steak or chicken wings).
- Arm yourself with good recipes.
Find a cookbook that takes your sensitivities into account so you don’t have to tinker with substitutions at dinner time, which could tempt you to reach for a more convenient option. From that source, identify recipes that align with your current tastes, try them out, and pick several sure-fire dishes that consistently work for you and your family. Customize them a little if necessary, copy them, and put them all in a “Favourite recipes” binder for quick reference. You’ll never be stuck for meal ideas again!
- Eat a variety of foods and rotate them.
Food sensitivities can result from simply eating the same food too often , so wait 3 to 4 days before eating a particular food again to give the body a chance to rid chance to rid itself of the residues of that particular food before eating it again. This can take up to 3 days, which is why the rotation diet is a cycle in which one eats a food (or its close relatives) no more frequently than every 4 days.
- Examine your food-related misconceptions.
Were you raised to believe that anything other than cereal, toast or pancakes for breakfast is just wrong? Or that the lunch you take to school or work has to include a sandwich? Or that dinner must be followed by a sweet desert? Release yourself from these beliefs – they are only habits that don’t serve you. There’s nothing wrong with having steamed veggies, chicken and rice for breakfast, or eating your take-away lunch with a fork! The only rules are the ones your body lays out for you. Be easy on yourself and have fun. Rather than feeling deprived, thank your food sensitivities as opportunities to try new things that you might otherwise not have. You never know – in addition to feeling better, you might find you love your new discoveries more than the foods you left behind.