Wednesday, May 26, 2010

food allergies are fun (not!)

A weekend in the country, all that fresh air and country cooking sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Sadly, for the weaker members of our species, like me, it’s a slow road back to health after a break like this one. Instead of returning refreshed, the subsequent days are peppered with aching joints, a runny nose and the type of intestinal distress that has no place on the pages of a food blog.

My current condition reminds me of a recent piece in The Age by Sian Prior. Hard to Stomach, informatively depicts the physical and social downsides of living with food allergies, intolerances and the like. In the end Sian concluded that she’s only eating at home in future.

Once I got out of denial about my dairy allergy (no it’s not “normal” for my gut to do the things it did, nor to get a cold every month and glands to rise and fall like a hyperactive child jumping on a trampoline) and reintroduced seafood into my once vegetarian diet, life got a lot more fun. Sure I missed mountains of melted yellow cheese on a pile of nachos, Philly and homemade apricot jam smeared on pumpernickel and finding comfort in a bowl of chocolate ice cream but I wouldn’t swap it for feeling sick 80% of the time.

The “new” diet has been imbedded for two decades now and it’s so much a part of my life that my relationship with dairy products made it into a birthday rap friends wrote for me a few years ago. I’ve a few more pesky intolerances I have to navigate around but I’ve got the hang of it by now. I don’t go out of my way looking for alternatives or bemoan what I can’t eat, I just negotiate my way through the amazing cuisines on offer in this city.

But there lies the key. You can’t expect the country to offer the same range of foods as the city and when I found myself in the Blue Mountains for the weekend I felt catapulted into a time warp. Katoomba, I soon discovered, is the town that time forgot. For some reason it appears to have got stuck in the 70’s, especially the food and music (James Taylor and Pink Floyd cover bands for your listening pleasure).

It’s difficult to explain, even to a friend, why when the only vegetarian item on a menu is pumpkin soup I get nervous. It means I have to potentially ask three very fussy-eater questions or suffer the consequences. Do you use vegetables stock? Is the stock fresh or powdered (does it contain MSG)? Is there any cream/dairy in the soup?

It can get very embarrassing being perceived as being fussy, attention seeking or worse*. The reality is it’s about survival not pickiness. Lately when I’ve encountered monosodium glutamate (additive 621) instead of only suffering the inconvenience of an insatiable thirst and mood swings (oh boy, don’t take me on a first date to an Asian restaurant!), I now have the additional sensation that a small elephant is sitting on my chest. Feeling like you can’t breath is rather frightening, especially when it’s something that hasn’t happened before. Adrenaline courses through your body as survival reflexes kick in, your mind panics and after the first few struggling minutes you wildly wonder if you are going to die. At the same time I have to restrain myself from ripping of my clothes (“this top feels so heavy, maybe if I take it off I’ll be able to breathe?”) and running out of the restaurant (“there’s not enough air in here, it will be better outside”). Ok, so maybe a dash of MSG could make me a really fun first date after all!

I accept that my decision to no longer eat meat is a choice. It’s one based on what feels right physically, environmentally and ethically but I’m not going to preach about it, it’s personal. But modifying your diet due to food allergies and intolerances is the difference between being well and experiencing a variety of physiological reactions. At this point they are not life threatening, just darned uncomfortable.

But unlike Sian, I’ll still risk eating out, I’ll continue going on holidays and I will eat at friend’s houses. Well that is, if I have any who’ll still cook for me!

* The Age reported earlier in the month that most food allergies are non-existent yet did nothing to clear up the differences between allergies and intolerances. It is true, the majority of people with reactions to foods and substances do not have anaphylaxis. As I noted, my issues don't kill me, just make me feel crap (literally!) for days. The article is worth reading for the comments. No surprises there - we are all a bunch of hypochondriac moaning Minnies.

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Blogger Stefanie said...

I'm allergic to almonds, and my nutritionist suggested getting a card made up to say exactly what I'm allergic to, which you can pass to the waitress and this can then to be taken to the chef. This way, they know you're serious, you don't have to make a fuss, and you can be pretty sure that you're not getting anything you are allergic/intolerent to.

12:22 pm  
Blogger Johanna GGG said...

I saw Stefanie's comments about a card on her allergy - Sylvia has been to the allergy clinic and although only in the first stages of identifying if she has any, I was interested that she has an A4 page signed by the doctor which is similar to others I have seen at childcare that have the child's photo, a list of allergies and a list of the possible side effects and what to do about them. Maybe adults should get these too (like your could read if given msg she is likely to take her clothes off and run out of the restaurant - do not restrain or photograph!!!)

4:57 pm  
Blogger Ann ODyne said...

These days of heightened awareness should result in all food retailers being savvy enough to describe allergy specific dishes on their menus, especially regarding the inclusion of MSG, well-known as something that can have a scary effect on some people.
Stefanie (above) would have to watch carefully for almond meal in little cakes and tarts, under the icing on celebration cakes too.
The human body is a finely balanced machine and food is not just for pleasure. Take care and good luck.

6:23 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Stefanie, glad the strategy is working for you. Nut allergies are nasty, anaphylaxis and all that!

Johanna, I think I'd end up with a double dose of MSG with that card LOL.

Ann - I got into a minor twitter conflict recently with another member of the food blogging community who seemed hell bent on telling me (and others) that it must be something other than MSG we react to. It seems denial is alive and well in the community.

10:36 pm  
Blogger Kath Lockett said...

You're absolutely right about the 'dangers' of eating in the country or, let's face it, anywhere outside of the city.

Therefore, if you're ever up in Queensland, don't even TRY eating anything outside of your FNQ resort or Brisbane unless you want it taken straight out of the freezer, defrosted in the microwaved and plonked into the deep fat fryer... **shudder**

9:26 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Kath - reminds me of Scotland, which was the deep-frying champion of the world when I visited (quite a while ago now). When I saw my nice, simple pizza I'd ordered get flipped in half calzone-style and tossed into the bubbling fat I got very, very worried.

1:11 pm  
Blogger Zoe said...

I've been really surprised at the virulence some people feel towards people with restricted diets. I've always enjoyed a challenge in feeding someone!

8:41 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Zoe I have been musing on exactly that thought the last few days. What is it, I wonder, that is so threatening? A fear of difference? Some weird kind of jealousy (hell, I've seen envy about getting a vego meal earlier on some flights than the regular meal service but let me tell you there aint anything "special" about a dietary preference meal in cattle class regardless of whether you get it first or last!) or is it that some home cooks are one trick wonders and aren't confident enough to cook anything other than their set dinner party meal? Who knows.

8:49 pm  
Anonymous Megan said...

Don't take this the wrong way but I really do feel sorry for those with food allergies. I feel like they lose out on so much. I had a classmate in high school and she had all these food allergies and it shows up on her skin. It's not pretty. And the worst part about it I guess is not being able to eat all the good stuff :( Which is why I'm so thankful I don't have allergies (that I know of anyway).
But on the bright side, they may find a cure to allergies so you may eat to your heart's content.

11:14 pm  
Anonymous Emily said...

I only just saw this post and it is very apt for me.

I too suffer from food allergies and intolerences and hate being labelled a fussy/picky/difficult eater.

I am allergic to stone fruit - I had an anaphylaxis from peach of all things! I have to carry an adrenalin pen with me at all times. Thankfully it is a seasonal problem and ordinarily stone fruit doesn't randomly make its way into meals (unlike nuts or MSG).

I am also wheat intolerant, although not gluten intolerant. Thankfully I am able to tolerate a small amount of wheat before I am ill (maybe a little in a sauce or something) but if I unwittingly eat wheat I am not well. I recently had an issue where I ate a gluten free pizza that was clearly not gluten free and was I was sick for 24 hours...

5:06 pm  

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