My food life didn't used to be so complicated. When I was young, I ate whatever my parents put on the table. Well, not the super-hot jalapenos, but my dad was happy to take those. When I was a teenager, I started getting fierce sinus headaches, along with the usual skin break-outs that most teenagers face. The cramps each month made school a misery but thank goodness for Midol! When I was an older teen, I read Laurel's Kitchen and really got into using whole wheat flour, which nobody else in the house appreciated. They liked it much better when I went through the baking cakes from scratch phase.
My first experience with the impact food might be having on my health came when I was living away from home, I think maybe the first summer in college. It was my first time living by myself in my own apartment, having a kitchen to myself, and totally responsible for my own feeding. I picked up the book, Sugar Blues, and decided to try going sugar-free.
It was hard and required a lot of research, label reading, and learning to cook new ways. I eliminated all added forms of sugar from my diet: no white sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, or any other kind of sweetener. I got pretty obsessive and even refused to buy products with caramel coloring since that was a sugar derivitive. I ended up not eating dairy either, but I can't remember if it was because it contained lactose (a milk sugar) or because the taste didn't appeal. A few weeks in, I lost my desire to eat meat; it no longer tasted good to me and the texture was bothersome so, by route of eliminating sugar, I ended up eating a vegan diet.
My health and well-being improved significantly. I was no longer troubled by sinus headaches. I had plenty of energy. I was happy.
I was seduced off this path by a simple, innocent gesture by my mom. Trying to be helpful, she gave me a book called Sweet & Sugarfree: An All-Natural Fruit-Sweetened Dessert Cookbook. The sweetness came only from fruits, but the concentration in the desserts of these naturally occurring sugars triggered my cravings for other sugars once again. I went off the no-sugar diet with a bang by making and consuming half a grashopper pie. I was laid up sick for almost a week with the worst sinus infection I'd ever had.
I have never been able to go completely sugar-free again since. It's much more difficult to do when you share a life with someone else, but it's also just really difficult to do in today's world.
Fast forward a few decades to when I stumble across Dr. McDougall's book, The McDougall Program: 12 Days to Dynamic Health. He brought together all the disparate nutritional information I'd read over the years into one concrete, medically-proven way of eating for optimal health. I persuaded my sweetie to try it with me and we both felt great. We were willing to give up animal products to feel better in the present and to prevent future disease, especially since each of us has a nice representation in our family lines (stroke, glaucoma, heart disease, and cancer).
The times that we stuck with eating a whole foods, plant-based, starch-centered diet, we felt great. Our weight dropped, energy soared, aches and pains disappeared, and life was good. Life was, however, sometimes more challenging because avoiding all animal products - meat (that includes fish), dairy, eggs, and even gelatin - is not the societal norm. Not only did we skip those, we also eliminated added oils and reduced our sodium and sugar intake. Plus, we switched to whole grain products.
It meant learning a whole new way of cooking for me. At that time, there was not the cornucopia of vegan cookbooks available, and the few that were tended to use a whole lot of oil. Learning to make the dishes we loved a healthy way, especially quick breads and muffins, meant a lot of experimenting (and some failures). But over time, I came up with a lot of good recipes. You can find some right here on this blog, under the recipe tab at the top of the page.
After eating this way for a while and feeling really good, I started noticing that sometimes I did not feel so good. Repeated occurences of heartburn, which I never had before, led me to discover I was allergic to walnuts. Or, maybe not allergic in a technical sense, but definitely sensitive to them. Over time, I made the connection that eating any other tree nuts caused my skin to break out. My skin clears right up when I avoid those tasty almonds and pecans. Boy, would it have been nice to know that in highschool! Without my overall system feeling and working better, I never would have been able to tease our specific foods that made me feel worse.
However, the need to avoid nuts had just added a layer of complication to finding food that I could eat and also impacted the ability to eat with others. When someone invites you over to dinner, they really don't want to receive a long list of what you can't eat (meat, eggs, dairy, fats/oil, tree nuts). But, eating those things would make me sick, so I had no choice. Or rather, I had few dinner invitations...
I was never a big tofu fan but did eat it occasionally. One day, I noticed that my throat felt funny after I ate tofu. It felt constricted. The next time I had some tofu in a restaurant, my throat definitely felt like it was swelling. The final time I ate tofu, when a restaurant mixed up my order, I thought I was going to have to go to the hospital. I have scrupulously avoided tofu since, which is a real PITA when you are trying to eat a strict vegetarian diet. The vegetable meal options on Asian restaurant menus almost always include tofu. Many of the vegetarian frozen dinners feature tofu. Tofu is prominent at vegetarian potlucks and even the local all-vegan restaurant.
I now had an ingredient that was critical to avoid, not just one that would make me a little ill, but one that could, in theory, eventually kill me if the symptoms got worse each time I ate it. I learned to very carefully read labels and grill restaurants about what was in a dish I wanted to order. If I went to a potluck, I had to request that everyone label their dishes for those with allergies. It's a hassle but something I have to live with.
At least I could still use soymilk.
A few years later, I tried one of those Amazake rice drinks. We were on the road when I realized that I was having the same kind of allergic reaction to it that I do to tofu. We turned around and got to the nearest drugstore to buy some Benadryl, which we now always keep in the vehicle. I've since avoided any product fermented with "koji." It's a rice-based product but apparently a problem for me. To be on the safe side, I also avoid tempeh and miso.
But at least I could still drink soymilk.
Or could I? Lately I'd noticed that I had a lot more phlegm after any food or drink with soymilk. That was a reaction I used to have to dairy - an increase in mucous. Dairy also caused other problems, inflammation problems such as sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses) and plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the plantar fascia). Avoiding dairy virtually eliminated those two problems and soymilk was a wonderful substitute. It acts much like milk in baking, which was very helpful when I learned to bake fatfree, eggfree, whole grain breads and muffins.
On Monday of this week, I started a little mini-diet to get back on track. I'm eating potatoes as the main part of my meals, with steamed vegetables or a salad to go with it. I've been doing great on it, losing weight while feeling completely satisfied with the food. I have not missed coffee (or my old frappuccinos) at all. I am using far less sugar and salt, and not missing dessert. I sometimes miss the idea of dessert but not the actual food. I had intentionally avoiding using any soymilk, based on my growing suspician it was responsible for the phlegm.
However, last night I made mashed potatoes and I really wanted them to be a little creamy. So I used some soymilk. To my surprise, I had a rather serious reaction. It started about fifteen minutes after the meal when I felt quite flushed. A bit later, I noticed that my neck was feeling stiff and my knee was starting to hurt. I sat down and observed, with amazement, as the symptoms got progressively worse.
As I described the litany of aches and pains returning - ones that I hadn't had for quite a while - to my sweetie, he wondered if I might be getting the flu. Nope, no fever at all. A few minutes later, my throat started to swell and I kind of, um, freaked out. I quickly took a couple of Benadryl to deal with the allergic reaction, but that wasn't what the freak-out was about.
There are so many things I already avoid for my health and now I've got to add soy, all forms of soy, to that list. Do you have any idea how much more complicated that makes life?
Here's an example. I went through the pantry today and pulled out everything that contains soy. I can't eat these anymore.
If my sweetie wants them, we'll set them aside in a labeled box for him. Otherwise, I'll probably be trying to find a way to unload some of it. Not shown are 15 freakin' pounds of dehydrated soy-based fake chicken nuggets we got for our food storage. Leave me a comment if you are interested; they are tasty.
I have not gone through the refrigerator and freezer yet, but I know it's going to be equally grim. What I did do this morning was check out a couple of natural food stores to look at other nondairy milk options. What do I find?
Almond milk. Um, can't do that with my tree nut problem.
Coconut milk. It's two-thirds fat and all of it saturated. Not an option.
Rice milk. All brands have added oil. No thanks.
Hemp milk. Pretty high in fat, too.
The only one left is Oat milk. I remember not being thrilled about it when I tried it years ago, but I have no choice now. I can try making rice milk again at home, with no added oil, but previous attempts did not leave me impressed.
This means I'll be having to revise all my recipes again and I suspect some will not be salvageable without soymilk. This means I likely won't be able to eat out hardly anywhere anymore other than maybe Sweet Tomatoes salad bar where I can have salad with rice vinegar and a plain baked potato. This means I will likely never share a meal with other people again unless I do all the cooking. This means I will have to make almost all of our food from scratch. Some of the products I've gotten in the past to save time occasionally contain soybean oil (the pasta sauce in picture) or soy lecithin (the whole wheat bread in my freezer).
I am so irritated by this. I've made lots of changes to get healthier and it's been worth it. But now I have to eliminate a food I enjoy, one that is present in so many other foods I enjoy. I guess I shouldn't complain since there are plenty of healthy foods out there left for me to eat: potatoes and tubers of all sorts, grains and seeds, vegetables in every color of the rainbow, and luscious fruits. And theoretically, if I eliminate a food that has been causing me problems, even when I wasn't fully aware of them, my health should improve considerably. It may even turn out to be a key factor in my ability to lose my excess weight.
If nothing else, I can still drink my homemade liqueur...