Food

I Love Food, But Food Doesn't Love Me -- What's Behind Food Intolerance?

What happens when you find out that most of the food you enjoy is making you sick?

Over the last few decades the way we eat and prepare our food has changed drastically. The majority of the food we consume is either restaurant-made or store-bought, and we have become completely dependent on easily accessible food to accommodate our fast-paced lifestyles.

But what happens when you find out you can no longer eat most of these easily accessible foods because they are making you sick? That is what happened to me. Like growing numbers of people, I have come to recognize that I have food intolerances.

The number of people being diagnosed with lactose intolerance, gluten allergies, soy intolerance, and diabetes is growing at a rapid pace. A food intolerance exists when the body can't ingest or metabolize food properly, causing pain and discomfort that often prevents the body from absorbing important nutrients. A food intolerance is not the same thing as a food allergy, which is an overreaction of the immune system and can be deadly.

Part of the rise in food intolerance diagnoses stems from advances in medicine and a greater knowledge and awareness of the problem. But the drastic changes that have taken place in the Western diet are a major factor. Cyndi O'Meara, an expert nutritionist and author of Changing Habits, Changing Lives Cookbook, notes a 10-fold increase in the number of people with food intolerances in the UK in the last 25 years. O’Meara, along with scientific researchers, points to the large quantities of chemicals and processed foods and major changes in food preparation. Ingredients like artificial sweeters and modified milk can lead to a hyper-vigilant immune system that reacts painfully to more and more foods. As otherwise healthy people have delved into why they often feel unwell, “food intolerance” has emerged as a 21st-century health concern. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and the National Institutes for Health find that as many as 30 million people in the United States suffer from food intolerance --  four to five times the number with food allergies. Skin rashes, abdominal pains and even headaches can be symptoms of the body's struggle with certain ingredients.

Food intolerances can be extremely complicated. I went through years of embarrassing situations and extreme pain before I was finally able to realize that the source of my discomfort was the food I was eating. It has taken me another three years to figure out which foods are my friends and which are my enemies.

I found that even the best medical doctors do not know how to isolate food intolerances, and different nutrition experts have varying ideas about what types of foods make you sick and why. Fortunately, I finally found a nutritional therapist who discovered that I had an H. Pylori infection in my stomach and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). She explained to me that the symptoms I was experiencing (daily, extremely painful muscle spasms in my stomach being one of them) could be nearly completely eliminated with the right diet and natural supplements.

The six-week diet to cure my stomach infection consisted of a maximum of two fruits per day, no refined sugar, no deep-fried foods, no coffee, no alcohol, no cow’s milk or soy products, only gluten-free foods, and an extremely limited salt intake. But that six-week diet was just to cure my infection. To stay better in the long-term, I was told that I would need to have a similar diet for the rest of my life. I’m in my early 20s, so this felt like someone had whacked me in the face with a large frying pan. If there is anything that I really love, it's food, and if there is anything I hate, it's not being able to make my own decisions about how I lead my life.

But if I wanted to feel healthy, I had to forget the foods that I loved, and hand over my decision-making to my nutritionist. Imagine finding out that you would never again be able to enjoy a glass of wine, some candy, or some freshly baked bread? Ouch! I honestly didn’t think I would be able to pull it off without a few very painful cheats here and there.

Later, as the shock wore off, I realized that my predicament was challenging me to be creative. I began to collect recipes that contain only Casey-friendly foods, coming up with viable substitutes to keep my food enemies at bay. I started to scout out restaurants, bakeries and other food outlets that could accommodate my dietary needs. Then, as I concocted my new diet, I began to record my recipes and other discoveries on a blog I call The Adventures of Limited Eating.

Big benefits come with being compelled to think about everything that you eat. Now that I am more aware of the ingredients in fast food, I’m far less eager to grab a burger. I have discovered a whole new world of yummy foods that do not contain preservatives, refined sugar, gluten, or cow’s milk products.

As a limited eater (a badge that I now wear proudly), I have started to think about how the seemingly endless food options for the average American eater is really an illusion. Most of the prepared foods for sale on an urban street are highly processed, full of fat and refined sugar, and overpriced. Food enemies that daily attack our bodies are found on every shelf.

Being a limited eater brings the food options down so substantially that you no longer have the option of eating unhealthy foods. I’m better able to maintain a healthy weight, and I receive all my required nutrients while boosting my immune system and giving myself more energy. The stability in my blood-sugar levels has made me calmer and more even-tempered.

There are a myriad of possible substitutes out there, but you have to be adventurous, and there is no getting around the fact that it consumes some of your time. Not being able to just pick up my favorite dark chocolate bar at the shop still seems like a sacrifice when I look through the storefront window. But then I remind myself that I can go home and make some delicious gluten-free, refined-sugar-free pancakes with fruit, or an amazing berry smoothie, or even some nice gluten-free scones with homemade raspberry jam. Looking back, I find that being a limited eater has greatly increased the quality of my everyday life.

If you have been diagnosed as a limited eater (or you choose to cut out gluten, cow’s milk products, wheat, or refined sugar from your diet for other reasons), and are feeling overwhelmed, know that there are plenty of ways to still enjoy food. Most recipes can be changed to accommodate your dietary needs. For more information on the subject check out Web sites such as Food Intolerance Awareness and BestAllergySites

Casey Lazonick is a food blogger.