I’m not sure how many years I’ve had food allergies. There’s a good chance I developed them in my twenties; there’s a lesser chance that they always existed but worsened as I got older. They were initially diagnosed when I was 26 – corn, soy, barley, peanuts, sesame seeds, sulfites. My first reaction was that corn is in everything … especially the processed garbage that I shape my daily eats around. For a year, I gave up drinking Coke. I gave up eating candy and tortilla chips. (Fun fact: Red Bull and Mentos do not contain corn syrup.)
I still did not feel better. I’d turn bright red and splotchy after eating. I’d cough for hours on end. My chest would tighten up, leaving me feeling like I couldn’t breathe.
Being in New York allowed me access to some of the leading specialists in the field. I made an appointment with a top allergist/immunologist and subjected myself to a full range of tests – eight vials of blood were drawn in one sitting. The results came back a few days later. While I was healthy across the board, my allergies only looked worse. Turns out there are about two things in the world I’m not allergic to – cockroaches and corn.
Turns out that the allergy panel (where they inject you with doses of cat/soy/dust/etc. and watch your arm swell to Quasimodo-like proportions) is not entirely accurate. The corn, which I had dutifully avoided for a year, was fine. Eggs were not. Also, add legumes and cherries to the previous no-no list.
I haven’t had eggs in about four years now. I can’t tell you (especially when I’m particularly hungover), how much I crave eggs sunny side up or one of my dad’s amazing omelettes. When it comes to my allergies, I do my best to ask the right questions and to avoid the obvious culprits. For example, “Does this hamburger come on a roll with sesame seeds?” That’s an easy one. “Is this pasta made of egg or wheat?” tends to be a harder one. I asked that a few weeks ago at a conference and received a confused response of “it is pasta.” Did you know candy corn has sesame oil in it? Me neither.
I’m not going to lie. I’ve definitely toed the line, especially when it comes to the following items: Funfetti cake, soy sauce (with sushi), teriyaki (see: soy sauce), Chinese food (see: soy sauce and eggs), beer (copious amounts of barley), grilled cheese (bread = some combination of eggs, barley and soy.)
Then there are the less obvious things – telling a masseuse that they can’t use oils which may contain soy or sesame. Learning that the word “protein” is usually a loosely interpreted word that means “soy.” Sugarfree gum has soy lecithin in it.
Going out to eat flat-out sucks sometimes. I hate playing 20 questions with the server and feel even worse when I forget a detail, such as “don’t sprinkle sesame seeds on my sushi” and I have to give my food back. Appearing that picky feels incredibly awkward.
As I said, I played roulette the past few years. I avoided most of the obvious culprits, but gave in to random cravings and accidental consumption. Some reactions were worse than others, but luckily, I had never landed myself in the emergency room or had to use my EpiPen. (Note: If you’ve ever seen the needle on one of those, you’d think Reese’s Pieces wouldn’t be worth it. Trust me.)
A few months ago, I thought I had an ear infection and went to see a doctor for the first time since I moved to Phoenix. By the end of the visit, she decided that I couldn’t stay on the hardcore (over $600/month without insurance) allergy pills I had been taking for years. Decongestants were jacking up my blood pressure and it wasn’t a risk worth taking.
I’ve felt miserable for months, like I have a cold that won’t disappear. I’m tired, itchy, sneezy, coughy and any other of the dwarves I haven’t named. But what’s worse is the reactions.
I had become brave to a point of foolishness. If a specific allergen wasn’t listed in the first three ingredients, I’d consider it okay to eat. And was left feeling worse and worse each time. Saturday night, I scared myself straight.
Honestly, I’m not really sure what triggered my reaction. I ordered a salad (everything in it should have been fine) with a red wine vinaigrette (possibly sketchy – soy or sulfites), ate a few of my friend’s tots (possible egg wash) and had an Amstel Light. For two hours in bed that night, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. If you’ve never been in this position, you don’t want to experience it firsthand.
And so I made a decision yesterday. It’s time for me to stop messing with foods I can’t eat. I’m tired of feeling like garbage and, likely, few of my food choices are really worth it. The good news is that I have many foods I can eat – seafood, meat, wheat pasta, most fruits and vegetables, cheese. The bad news is that I have to start embracing either gluten-free beer or enjoying the ones that are lowest in barley (Coors Light, Bud) in much smaller quantities. I have to ask all the questions when I go out to eat. I have to make my own salad dressing, like the pioneers surely did. I’m going to have to eat more meals at home (yay, budget) and allot more time for food preparation.
So here’s to hoping I feel significantly better over the next few weeks. Please don’t talk about cake or dark beer in front of me. And if we go out to dinner, please disregard my order of white rice, lettuce and seasonal fruit.