Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Journey to Embracing Food Allergies

I've receved some questions about dealing with food allergies and nutrition.  I hope you find this helpful, despite being long and rambly.

My obsession with food began when my first child was born.  I was working full time when she came along, but I still made sure she had the best food available.  I would shop on the weekend for fresh organic produce, and then spend much of Sunday evening preparing and freezing tiny meals to last her through the week while she was at daycare.  Now we had the most amazing, loving, and wonderful daycare provider and she did a great job providing balanced meals for the kids.  But I insisted on taking it a step further than even that.  I was constantly reading and learning about food and nutrition for my little one, even while I still ate fast food for lunch and pizza for dinner.  That's all beside the point, but clearly I still had more to learn.

Then my son came along.  He was a handfull from day one.  I was exhausted and he was needy; it was time to walk away from my career and spend more time caring for my children.  He needed me more than we needed a second income (even though we really needed that second income at the time and walking away from a chemist's dream job was not easy).  By the time he was 2 months old, I knew I could no longer eat dairy.  If I ate/drank anything dairy, he would cry and cry.  I've always believed that children cry for a reason.  Eliminate the reason, eliminate the crying.  Once I was off dairy, his disposition improved.  But within a few months, his crying returned, although milder, his need to nurse drastically increased, he wouldn't sleep without me holding/nursing him, and he began to have rashes on his cheeks.  For a while I just thought it was hidden dairy and I worked harder to cook from scratch and double check food labels.  All while becoming more and more sleep deprived.

The rashes worsened and turned into full blown eczema, and infected eczema at that.  We began interviewing doctor after doctor, and my faith in the medical community plummeted.  Finding a doctor, even an allergist, who knows even a drop of factual information about food allergies is NOT easy.  Most allergists (at least the ones I ran into) know all about seasonal allergies, which they prefer to treat with weekly/monthly shots, but they know very little about food allergies.  In their defense, food allergies are tricky and they are not 'linear' in their cause and effects.  Some of the advice I received was down right dangerous to my son; that simply was not a fun season in our journey.  Finally we found a doctor willing to listen to me and to do some tests.  With the results, we found out we were not only fighting dairy allergies, but also egg, grains (except rice), nuts and tree nuts.  Whamo!  I drove home in shock that day.  That's a lot to take in when you are holding your 9 month old son who won't sleep without you.  Wondering what he will eat and realizing that not only could he not eat those foods, but I could not eat those foods.  Through trial and error I also knew he would not eat avocado, white potato, banana, and a year later found out he was allergic to strawberries.

I began a strict diet eliminating all the foods that he could not eat, and yet I still had to feed the rest of the family.  At first I was pretty much paralyzed; I remember sitting on the couch and shaking as my body went through withdrawals from the grains.  The first step that helped me move forward was to make out a 2 week meal plan of all the foods/meals we COULD eat.  It's much easier to focus on what you CAN eat, as opposed to what you cannot eat.  The next step that helped me (at the time, but I now regret it) was to search out substitute "foods" - allergen friendly snacks.  (avoid this if you can.  Often these substitutes are full of sugar and non-food ingredients.)  Those 2 steps got me through the next few years of our journey with my son and then my youngest when she came along.

Now backtracking... about the same time we finally realized what food allergies my son had to deal with, my 4 year old daughter began episodes of vomiting.  She had rarely ever been sick in her young life, and now she was waking up in the middle of the night, vomiting for hours.  It was painful to watch her suffer like that.  There seemed to be no rhyme or reason for these violent vomiting episodes and I was certain it was not viruses/bacteria since she would immediately feel fine as soon as she finished throwing up.  I kept food journals, we did allergy tests, we ran in circles, we prayed and pray some more, and even considered seeing a psychologist at one point.  Keep in mind that at that point, our diet was already very clean.

At this point we also had finally found a great doctor and he encouraged me to continue looking at food for the answer, which led us to a naturopathic doctor and one more test.  That's when we found my daughter is intolerant to potatoes.  Yes, potatoes of all things.  And that she does not tolerate ingesting dairy at the same time as grains.  She can have dairy, or grains, but never within the same 2 hour window.  How is that for odd food challenges?  Now not only do I have to remember no: wheat, oat, barley, rye, corn, dairy, egg, avocado, banana, strawberry, papaya, nuts and tree nuts, now I have to eliminate potatoes and time dairy and wheat ingestion.  Are you laughing with me yet?  Cue Mathew West's new song "Strong Enough", cause really this is more than one mother can deal with.  I was so doubtful, yet hopeful, walking out of that naturopath's office.

And the results?  Night and day - a prayer answered.  My daughter made drastic improvements after removing potato (all types) from her diet.  She went from having 2 vomiting episodes per week, to none.  As long as we kept her diet clean.   Through trial and error, we found out that any prepared/processed food "enriched" with vitamin B contained potato.  Back to reading labels and removing even more foods from our diet.  More and more food companies are now using potato starch to replace modified food starch, in their efforrs to make foods gluten free.  Try finding barbeque sauce that doesn't contain some form of starch!  Now you can cry with me; I love bbq sauce.  I've tried to learn to make it from scratch and have come up with some decent options, but nothing that has the perfect blend of tang and spice and texture that I love most.  Someday.  But fine, it's worth it to have her healthy.

The past year or so has been so much smoother.  My son now LOVES avocado and eats bananas.  I am so thankful for that.  He also enjoys corn, but still cannot eat other grains, eggs, nuts, or dairy.  My daughter is thriving without potato and both are becoming quite strong as the regularly train in gymnastics and trampoline.  Their arms are buff and their legs are fast.  I'm thankful we are through the worst of our journey and I pray that we stay on this side of the worst.

Now that my children are doing better, I realized it was time to begin working on my own health more urgently.  My youngest had been (mostly) sleeping through the night for quite some time, but I was still barely sleeping and always tired.  And the extra weight that I had been struggling to tackle for years was just not budging at all.  In February I gave up grains.  The experience has been a real eye opener for me - another prayer answered.  I feel so much better.  I'm sleeping better.  I'm happier, have more energy, and am finally losing weight.

And all that brings me to where I am today.  Embracing food allergies.  The more I have learned about food, studied nutrition, read, and read, and read, the more convinced I am that grains and sugar are not good for us anyway.  Certainly not for my little family.  I wish now that I had not searched out those gluten-free food substitues for easy snacks for my son.  And I wish that I had not spent so much time perfecting the perfect gluten, dairy, egg free birthday cake for my son or the perfect dairy free recipe for my daughter.  Not that I would ever regret investing time on them, but I wish I had learned to embrace the food allergies sooner instead of fighting to find replacements.  At this point I wish I had spent more time developing recipes for whole food meals that are guilt free and health building.  There is no reason to prepare whole wheat pasta for one half the family and brown rice pasta for the other half, when it is easier to roast up some cauliflower or grill some zucchini for the whole family to enjoy with that bolognese sauce.  No reason to take up extra pantry space by buying gluten free cereal and whole grain cereal when nitrate-free bacon, avocado, and coconut milk smoothies provide better fuel.  I've reached the point where I'm often thankful for the food allergies.  My family eats healthier because of our restrictions.  Those restrictions give us the strength to skip the drive through and not pick up the phone for delivery pizza, even on those days when life is busy.  And when we do eat out, even that is quite healthy.  Food allergies pushed me to feed my family the best fuel possible even when I didn't think I had the time and energy to do so.  Now that my convictions on food are stronger, I can look back and be thankful.

If you are struggling with food allergies, first off you have my empathy because I know how hard it can be.  And right after the empathy, I give you my encouragement.  Don't fight it.  It is what it is.  Your body will either heal and move on, or you will be stuck with this challenge for life.  It is what it is and you can enjoy food just the same.  You can find good nutrition in the many ingredients still available to you and you can learn to love the foods that will increase your health.  Focus on what you can eat, not on what you can't.   I hope this helps those of you whom are just beginning this journey of children and food allergies.


  1. I had much the same learning curve with my own food allergies. It's quite the education, isn't it?

  2. You took the words right out of my heart! Amen!
    Still want to talk to you about allergies sometime. :) But I'm buried in getting ready for school, which is why I popped over to your site to review how you put your FW notebook together - thanks! :)

  3. Thanks Kate! I can imagine how busy you are. I'd love to catch up anytime!

  4. I just found your awesome blog. I think I found it through a link from MFW. We are taking our 3 youngest children out of public school to homeschool this fall. Our middle child (ds age 11) has food allergies that we are finding out about. He has ADHD and possible mood disorder, but the changes in his diet that we are making are definitely helping. I feel that keeping him at home will help us to be able to feed him better, which hopefully will help him in other areas as well.

    I hope you keep blogging because I could really use the info and encouragement on cooking for someone w/ allergies. Plus I would like to lose about 10 pounds myself, and become a stronger more healthy person.

    You have a beautiful family.