Up until ten years ago, food allergies were a foreign concept to me. Like many, I, too grew up on a diet filled with processed and refined foods, eating anything and everything I wanted without a care in the world!
Growing up, my relationship with food was the furthest thing from harmonious. I either loved or hated food. Food was either my friend or my enemy. I was obsessed with food and my weight. I never thought twice about how the quality of food impacted my body. For me, it was all about quantity. From the age of ten and well into my young adult years, I struggled with everything from anorexic tendencies, to binging and purging, to orthorexia, and pretty much everything in between. All the while, my mental and physical health was spiraling downwards at a rapid pace. Intuitively, I knew that something was wrong, but I never once thought that the culprit was indeed the food that I was eating – or, well, at least one of the culprits. Perhaps I was naïve, or simply just oblivious to the impact that food was having on my body. It wasn’t until I started university, gained 60lbs in my first semester, slipped into a deep depression and hit rock bottom, that I uncovered what would be my new reality: food sensitivities – both allergies and intolerances.
Since then, I have been diagnosed with a whole host of conditions including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Celiac Disease, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Endometriosis. With all of these conditions comes many food allergies and intolerances. I am allergic to wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, bananas, garlic and, well, the list goes on! My food restrictions are ever changing, and although I have been able to reintroduce many foods that I was initially intolerant to, I have also since developed new intolerances due to my gut health and medical conditions. When asked what diet I follow, I always answer that, “I eat what makes me feel my best and allows me to heal!”
But, let’s be real, living with food sensitivities – be it an allergy or an intolerance – can be downright difficult. Like I once was, you may find yourself feeling lost, confused, frustrated and deprived of freedom. Over the past ten years, I have learned to not only survive, but thrive in a life filled with allergens.
Here are 5 Easy Tips to Navigating Life with Food Allergies:
1. Focus on What you Can Eat
Rather than focusing on what you can’t eat, focus on what you can eat. When foods get restricted from your diet, you are more likely to crave and then binge. This creates an ongoing cycle which, in turn, exacerbates your symptoms. The number one most important thing to do when restricting foods from your diet, is to ensure that you have alternatives for those foods. Dairy, for example, is a common allergen which has many alternatives available such as coconut or nut mylk.
It is very easy to view food as your enemy when you are faced with allergies. If we start demonizing foods, we go down a very dangerous path. Ensure that you have a positive and harmonious relationship with the food you are eating. Food has enormous healing properties, so remember, food is your friend!
2. Keep it Simple
Food sensitives usually come in multiples and leave you wondering, ‘Is there anything that I can eat?’ Keep it simple and don’t overthink your meals. Stick to the basics and use whole foods when preparing your meals. Take the time to prepare your meals in advance and cook from scratch whenever possible. Doing so gives you control over your food. And remember, you are not in this alone! Unless you love experimenting, don’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are tons of resources available for recipes that cater to your food sensitivities.
3. Set Yourself Up for Success
Know the signs and symptoms of how allergies and intolerances present in your body. This will allow you to know when cross-contamination has occurred and how to deal with the symptoms that follow.
Plan ahead! Let’s face it, life can get busy, leaving us more vulnerable and likely to slip on our food intake. Designate one day per week to prep your meals for the week ahead. This will ensure that you have safe, healthy, grab and go meals for those busy days. Have I mentioned that smoothie bowls are one of my favorite meals? Quick, easy, customizable and nutritious!
It’s also a good idea to ensure that you have a list of safe, go-to, allergen free restaurants/cafés on hand for those days where you just don’t have the time to get into your kitchen!
Know how to avoid cross contamination in the kitchen. If you are using a shared kitchen, take steps to have your ‘safe space,’ like designating certain shelves in your cupboards and fridge as allergen free. If possible, have separate cooking utensils and appliances that are allergen free. If this is not possible, ensure that all cooking utensils and cooking surfaces are thoroughly cleaned between usages.
4. ALWAYS Read Labels
Nutrition Labels contain valuable information. You can find allergens as well as any additives that you may be sensitive to listed under the ingredients heading. Additionally, there is often information about whether the product was manufactured in a dedicated allergen free environment, or if cross contamination may have occurred during manufacturing.
Companies frequently change ingredients, and an allergen that was once not present, may now be part of the new formulation. So, it is very important to develop a habit to always read food labels, even if it is for a product that you purchase all the time!
Read the labels on your personal care products, household products, supplements and medications. You would be amazed at the places that common allergens like gluten, dairy, corn and soy can be hidden.
Many foods, such as dairy, use terms in labels that are unfamiliar to the average consumer. Be sure to research the ingredients, or contact the company for more information. And remember, just because a product is ‘gluten free’ or ‘vegan’, it doesn’t mean it is healthy or compatible with your nutritional needs.
5. Ask the Right Questions
After being diagnosed with food allergies, I was terrified at the thought of eating out. So much so, that I started restricting my social life, allowing my food allergies to control me. I was so afraid of the possibility of cross contamination, but more than that, I was afraid of being judged by my social group as well as the staff at the restaurant. I have since learned over the years that more often than not, others are very understanding and accommodating of my allergies.
Do your research and learn the right questions to ask when you are dining out. For example, cross contamination commonly occurs in fried foods. The fries themselves may be gluten free, but they are subject to cross contamination when they are put into the deep fryer. Knowing this, you can ask to have your fries baked instead. When ordering a salad, question what is in the dressing, and opt for a safe alternative like olive oil or balsamic vinegar. Ask the restaurant staff how the food is prepared to determine if and where cross contamination may have occurred.
Look at the restaurant’s menu online ahead of time to see what options they have that may suit your needs. If you are still unsure, you can even contact them (during non-peak hours) to see if your intolerances can be accommodated. Tell the restaurant staff what your allergies are, ask what food items would be safe for you, and then question further from there. I like to view my food allergies as an opportunity to educate others on how to handle allergens and what cross contamination can do. Because, remember, you aren’t the only one with food allergies!
In today’s day and age, food allergies have become a reality for so many. On the bright side, this means there is more awareness about food allergies now than there ever has been! Use the many options and resources available to you allow you to live a life where you can thrive with your food allergies!
Written by Jasmine Garcha, R.H.N
Jasmine Garcha is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, a Health and Lifestyle Blogger and the founder of Holistic Jazz, a platform dedicated to creating awareness about chronic health conditions, mental illness, food intolerances and holistic wellness… basically, ‘All that Holistic Jazz!’ She is passionate about creating awareness and educating others on thriving through a holistic lifestyle. Jasmine is an intuitive and expressive storyteller who utilizes her true, raw and authentic story to empower others.