Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Allergies and the Environment

I'm not sure what it is about allergies; but I find that the farther I delve into them the more aware of our environmental impact I become.
Part of it is the quest for a cause, which may lead to a cure.  Part of it is becoming aware of the way our food chain works, which raises more questions than it seems to answer.  And part of it is simply that the more aware I am of what is IN food, the less I want it in my (or my kids') bodies.  It's not about avoiding allergens.  It's about our safety, and our society's sustainability.
What would we do if suddenly massive truck routes were made impassable?  If we were forced to eat fresh produce and meat without grains?
This happened in parts of Europe during the second world war.  This dangerous diet led to...increased health.  But, during the second world war, we still had memories of how to farm.  We had a little extra space to garden.  We had memories of how to prepare and preserve our own food, or there were plenty of people around who could teach us.
And there were a lot fewer of us to feed.  In an age of microwaves, freezers and take out containers, how many would know how to plan and execute a month's worth of meals if heaven forbid there were no more factory food deliveries?  There's a commercial that we used to laugh at.  "Without us, some guys would starve".
"So true," we joked.
But when we entered the realm of food allergies and started cooking from scratch, we stopped laughing.  With an increased awareness of ingredients, and additives, and the true definition of cooking from scratch, the jingle seemed too hit too close to home.  And all of these realizations led us to an increased awareness of sustainability.  
Allergies themselves are overwhelming, especially when you have a slew of them that require multiple pages to list.  Corn being one of the toughest allergies to live with, since it even shows up in the citric acid rinse on bagged salad.  Sustainability isn't a main concern.
And yet, it is.  Corn is the number one source cited when companies talk about environmentally friendly "green" resources.  But it isn't sustainable.  It isn't a sustainable crop, it requires a lot of gunk to grow industrially, and then it takes a lot of energy and effort to turn cobs into something that doesn't resemble a kernel, an ear or a husk. It's just natural, and sounds more sustainable than petroleum and plastic. 
I now look at food in a new light.  I wonder about the modifications we've put it through the past several decades.  Trying to grow a better variety, something easier or hardier or simply more aesthetically pleasing.  I wonder about the cost of our actions.  The loss of heirloom varieties of plants, the loss of diversity.  I worry about what exactly is coursing through the veins of my children.  I've seen the detrimental effects of food dyes on Bumblebee.  I've seen a playful Penguin double over, pale and sweaty, from a simple snack. 
I hear them complain of random tummy aches or mild headaches, and I wonder what else might be going on.  I look at ingredient lists and ask myself why, exactly, they need BHT or TBHQ.  Xanthan gum might improve the texture, but how much can a body really handle?  And what about all those synthetic vitamins?  Grown en masse in laboratories to try and replace some of the nutrients lost in the soil from our poor farming practices, do our bodies know what to do with them?  And the process itself can't be especially good for the environment.
None of this would ever have been given more than a fleeting thought, I'm certain, if it weren't for the food allergies.  I used to figure that what was in the food wasn't all that bad, I read lists...but not that closely.  Carageenan?  Hypromellose?  tocopherols?  High fructose corn syrup?  They had to come from somewhere.  And the FDA approved them.  That was good enough to consume them in moderation.
And now I wonder.  Not only what they do to us, but what effect do they have on the environment?  What unseen damage can they do?

I note that food isn't the only thing with an ingredient list, and the personal care aisle scares me, too.  Products designed to be washed away into our water supply.  With names like Polyethylene (which, by the way, is bits of plastic designed to help exfoliate.  Bits of plastic and corn derivatives, bound together for eternity and washed into our water supply, where any bacteria and large particles might be cleaned up...but anything minute is likely to remain in tact and be ingested by something else, animal or human.) or ammonium lauryl sulfate (a foaming agent commonly derived from coconut or palm alcohols) what sort of effect do they have on our water supply?  Or the quality of the soil they drain into? 

You see, the awareness of cross contamination, and the inability to sterilize away cornstarch dust or drops of peanut oil, makes me aware that nothing vanishes from our planet.  It may get absorbed, or rearranged, or diluted.  But it doesn't vanish.  The problem may begin, for our family, with allergen containment, but the question of "why" leads us to the bigger picture.  The chemicals and GMO's whose safety I question for my family aren't easily contained. The wind blows, the bees pollinate, and flowers blossom freely.  They don't know where the boundaries between organic and inorganic lay.  And honestly, as a society we don't know the long term effects. 

Most of us don't give it more than a fleeting thought.  I know I never did.  I tried to toss my water bottle into the recycle bin instead of the trash can, I parroted the idea that organic was better but I didn't really deeply care.  Not until the allergies opened my eyes, and I began not only seeing the cause and effect of something as ubiquitous as food but questioning choices I'd never thought to question before. 
While some studies are linking allergies to environmental causes, I'm finding that allergies are lowering our personal environmental impact in a lot of little ways.  Sure, I have to drive farther to get to the grocery store that carries gluten free pasta, but I don't waste time idling in a drive through.  I don't buy many single serve packages, and we gravitate toward environmentally friendly cleaning aids like baking soda and vinegar. 

Truthfully, I don't know if I'm happy to know all I know.  I'd be perfectly happy to still be in the dark regarding the origins of microcrystalline cellulose and astaxanthin.  In fact, I don't think I'd miss being able to spell either one without a cheat sheet.  Awareness breeds responsibility. 
While I can't do as much as I want for the environment, awareness gives me the opportunity to do more than I might have before and allergies give me the motivation.  Maybe someday my grandkids will have a planet to inherit, after all. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Mommy, promise not to get offended if I tell you something?  Promise?" 
Um, okay. 
"You might become famous someday.  You might be famous for having the most food allergies." 

I found it amusing, not offensive.  And I can see how it would look that way to a child who has spent the last 10 years on a food allergy diagnostic roller coaster, especially when one of them is corn. 

So...What do you eat?

Last week we started a Candida diet that was also (mostly) free of gluten, casein, corn, and a host of other smaller allergens. 
The verdict?  Success.  And Mr. Violets is sick of salad. 

In the world of food allergies, one question seems to arise more than any other.  At least, when the subject of either corn or gluten is involved.  That questions is..."What do you eat?"  (said in a variety of tones ranging from pity to suspicion or outrage) 
So here's a list of dinner dishes for a week's worth of meals. 

Baked cod on a bed of spinach and onions.  (3 thumbs up.  Bumblebee declined to taste.)
Homemade 'quiche' (4 wavery thumbs up.  It's better with some sort of cheese.  Off the candida diet, we make two dishes, one with dairy cheese one with dairy free corny cheese.) 
Chicken breast with mashed turnips and salad.  (It's better than it sounds.  3 thumbs up, Bumblebee only gives a 4th thumb up for the salad.  But she at least contemplated the turnips.) 
Tuna casserole.  (not gourmet, but we like it.) 
Crepes with nut butter and soup. 
Spaghetti soufflee

There are a lot of eggs in there, but eggs are a good source of protein, calories and fat.  And they're cheap, which goes a long ways in their favor.  Next week, we're looking forward to Mr. Violet's diet including beans and sweet potatoes again...adding several potential delights to our menu. 

We found that the second week was a bit harder than the first week.  We wanted to revert to our old "make a starch and everyone chooses their own veggies and protein" cycle.  And the heat wave that hit made our appetites wane.  But we seem to be muddling through.  Tonight's menu is stuffed squash for Mr. Violets and the girls; leftovers for me.  Not bad; and could be made corn free if you have a safe source of ground beef.  (or you could probably use lentils.  They aren't listed on the candida free diet, and I haven't actually tried adding them back to my own diet...but I can't eat squash and am still deciding how well tomato sits.) While nothing we made was gourmet, and probably doesn't compete much with restaurant fare, it was homey and tasty and filling.  What more can you ask for? 
That it feed a whole family?  Well, it did that, too.  (Or it would have if Bumblebee were just a little less stubborn.  But again, she tried and gets points for eating salad almost everynight.) 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Grocery Bill

Some days, I look at the grocery bill and feel guilty.  After all, I'm the one who has the most restrictions.  Chocolate chips cost $3.39; rather than $1.99.  Pasta is pretty close to the same.  I can't swap brands for a better price.  My daughter may be gluten free...but she isn't corn free.  And sometimes gluten free by itself isn't all that expensive.
But recently I was given a puzzle.  As you may recall if you read my blog regularly, I was recently on an extended liquid diet.  Consisting of mostly broth, pureed veggies from said broth, applesauce and gelatin.
It wasn't a very expensive diet.
I was still making meals.  The grocery bill should have gone down a bit, with Mr. Violets having extra leftovers for lunches and Penguin having extra leftovers for munching.  Oddly, it went up quite a bit...just for those two weeks.  I was truly puzzled when I looked over the credit card bill.
But then I turned to the receipts, and I looked in the fridge.
It seems that instead of using those leftovers, new meals were made and consumed.  And instead of finishing off the last bit of hummus, it was pushed to the back to make room for a new tub.  There were 3 tubs of (unsafe for me) margarine in there.  And the summer sale stash I'd stockpiled?
So this is what happens when moms get sick.
No one went hungry while I was down.  (And no one goes hungry when I'm *not* down)  Actually, I wasn't all that down and out...the liquid fast thing helped a lot.  I was tired, but mostly functional.  I did work more on "get that yourself". 
I had noticed that the tupperware cupboard was looking a little bare.  I hadn't noticed how much toast Gluten Free Penguin was enjoying.  I was just mentioning the leftovers and presuming the family would follow through.
Before this turns into some sort of poor me rant, I want to skip straight to the point.
Eating allergen free doesn't have to be all that expensive.  It's only expensive when you don't mediate your choices.  Look in the fridge, use those leftovers.  Put off shopping trips, and while it's important to stock up on sale items when they are on sale...they need to still be used as if you don't have a huge stockpile and are still limited to one or two packages a week or month.
I can make a tuna casserole that's safe for all of us.  It's not gourmet, but it's tasty.  It costs about a dollar a serving.  But if we throw half of it away, it costs $2 per serving.  And the amount that is thrown away gets replaced by other, often more expensive, snacks and lunch items.
Likewise...rice and beans costs maybe $4 total?  And after it serves us, there is enough rice leftover, generally, for fried rice tomorrow night. But if we throw half of it away, the cost doubles.  And leftover night becomes "easy meal" night...and easy meals are generally a little more expensive at least for the ones eating single serve items. 
On the other hand, the old standby, a sandwich, costs about $2 each for Penguin.  More if dairy free cheese is involved.  And it's not filling by itself.  $2 doesn't sound like much, but it adds up quickly.  The worst part is that gf bread may be a good vehcle for hummus, tomatoes and other items...but it isn't in itself very nourishing. 
It's good to know that my corn-free status isn't the sole source of high grocery bills.  Allergy eating can be expensive...but it can be affordable, too.  With a little bit of planning. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Corn Crazies

I can have chocolate.  But not Hershey.  (Or Dove, or Palmer, or Nestle)
I can have eggs.  But only certain, specific eggs.  Not generic grocery store eggs.
I can eat apples.  If they are unwaxed and peeled.  But that doesn't mean I can have any old applesauce.
I can eat rice.  But only if it's un-enriched, and only from certain farms that don't grow corn. 

The restrictions sound crazy.  Laughable, even.
I can remember being relieved that I was "just" allergic to corn.  Just corn.  It sounded so easy.  But things got harder, I sought help.  I started reading and found a community of corn-allergic individuals.  My eyes widened, I shook my head, I congratulated myself on not going overboard.  And then, slowly, I learned that I needed to be just as fanatical as others seemed to be.  There are times I wonder if I've gone crazy.  But I've spent too much time recovering from unplanned, unexpected, hindsight revealed 'oopses' to believe that it could possibly be just in my head.
Every so often it gets to be too much.  I step outside myself and look at the restrictions through a stranger's eyes and think I'm going too far.  And although I try to rationalize it out, and even talk myself into taking chances,  I find others in a similar situation voicing their own shaken faith in their bodies' reactions to normal, healthy, should-be-safe food.  More often than not, the culprit is quickly and easily identified in the form of an added enrichment, or a new preservative.  Sometimes it requires a little a cross contaminated batch of almonds (perhaps shipped in the same loading truck as corn?)  How can you dispute unintentional blind trials that end in proof?  Especially when there are multiple people reporting the same experience.  Maybe our methods aren't scientific, but they aren't easy to dismiss either. 
That's what makes social events so hard.  Even water is softened with corn derived citric acid, or the taste is improved by corny minerals, or it's bottled in a corn-based environmentally 'friendly' polymer.  People might overlook the fact that you abstain from cookies.  But if you can't even accept the water they hand you due to allergies...well, the looks are enough to make even the least self conscious of us blush.
Whispers of eating disorders aren't uncommon, or surprising.  Especially now that Orthorexia is the diagnosis du jour.  
For me, as I suspect it is for others, the truth is much more complicated.  There is no self-loathing involved.  I'm tempted to give in, and hang the consequences.  Regardless of caloric content, I'd love to eat that cookie.  Taste the pasta salad, or at least have a few pieces of the fruit plate.  (I'd settle for drinking some of that new-branded water in the cooler)  But in reality, the consequences aren't worth it.  I want to share the meal, but I want to function tomorrow. Whether it's hives, boils or GI malfunction...the reactions are not fun, comfortable, or something to be shared in public.  They also aren't mediated by any part of the brain other than the immune system.  IgE, IgG...the body is attempting to protect itself.  
It's unfortunate that without demonstrating those reactions, it's difficult at best to convince others that they are nonetheless real and valid reasons for food avoidance. 

The trouble with corn is that even when I'm avoiding everything as I should be, there are little, subtle exposures that slip in.  These exposures seem to keep me from fully recovering or ever being 100% reliable.  And the years of damage have affected my daily stamina.  I don't have the energy I should, and it isn't's malnutrition.  Even if/when I'm eating healthfully, the long term damages are still there.  

With a corn allergy, sometimes it feels like I'm sitting in a box seat.  I'm not entirely alone, thanks to the internet, but I don't exactly fit in with most of the other groups.  Whether it's the food allergy advocates, the Celiac sufferers or the tree-huggers; I have 3/4 of the values in common...but there's still a wall between us made of that eco-friendly kernel, insidious yellow seed, corn. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Just one more thing to worry about with allergies

According to a recent study, children with Celiac Disease, like those with any chronic illness, are more at risk for emotional and behavior problems than their peers. 
I don't think it's a huge leap to say any food allergy would work similarly. 
And I can't help but wonder if this is what plays a part in my kid's anxiety issues.  Is it related to trichotillomania?  Or the anxiety driven tantrums? 
I don't know.  But I can't change the way our family's dietary restrictions work without hurting us.  So I can only hope that we can continue to reassure, that the interventions we've chosen are helpful, and that as a society we become more supportive of food restrictions for any reason. 
Why would kids with dietary restrictions be more at risk for emotional problems?  To my way of thinking it's understandable when they are required to go to school, but school personnel and their peers don't always 'get' allergies.  When other parents are busy fighting for their children's right to eat peanut butter, the food allergy kid is hearing "you're ruining things for everyone".  When pizza is served to 19 out of 20 kids and the food allergy child gets to grab their own personal lunch from their backpack, they get the message that they aren't as special as the rest of the class.  They have to put up a wall to remind themselves to say no, to be polite, to be different. 
I don't know what the answer is.  But awareness helps.  And hopefully therapists will learn a bit about food allergy; and the difference between medically restricted diets and eating disorders. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Challenge Awaits

My husband has asked for help.  He wants to lose weight, and he craves sugar as if suddenly exposed to it after years of being deprived.
Bumblebee has asked for help liking vegetables.  She took recent nutrition curriculum, along with a short lecture from her doctor, very seriously.
And I'm just sick of being sick.  I reckon I'm on the mend, but there are a few tests still pending (expensive tests that need to be put off just a teensy, tiny bit) 
So...the challenge is based on a gluten free candida cleanse.  There will be salads at every evening meal, free access to veggies, a few non-gluten whole grains, and some new meals.  Most meals will be corn free.  The girls will be permitted dressings and moderate access to fruit (we really want Bumblebee to feel obligated to munch on veggies.  We know she likes some...we just need to get her to eat more of them than the safe, comforting carbs she craves) 
This weekend, dh is fasting.  Next week's menus include such goodies as roasted chicken, mashed turnips, egg salad and omelets.  Penguin is excited, she loves veggies and new things and that she won't be the only corny one not eating gluten.  Bumblebee is accepting but trepidatious.  She knows she can go for a long time without eating, but as we tell her...the point isn't NOT to eat.  The point is to eat healthy foods.
I'm telling myself it will make up for missing Lent.  And's much better than that liquid diet I just got off of.  I may make up a bit more gelatin, which although not candida friendly is acceptable on some candida style diets and I'm not supposed to eat raw veggies, they make my pancreas bite back.
I'm not sure the week's challenge will go...but I thought I'd share.  This way, we can't back out!