If you’d told me 10 years ago that my family and I would be gluten-free, I would have laughed so hard I would have fallen into my pastry! As a professional chef and Midwesterner with a lifelong love of Italy (and its food!), I never could have imagined that my diet would one day be turned on its head.
But after a few tumultuous life events, including the birth of my son, I started having some serious health issues. For almost two years, I suffered from a series of debilitating symptoms that no one could identify, until finally, while seeking help for health problems my son was having, a kind doctor finally diagnosed the root of my problems.
I had Hashimoto’s disease, a thyroid condition that affected my whole body, and because it developed (and went untreated) while I was pregnant with my little guy, he emerged with some health issues as well.
And while the diagnosis was an enormous step towards healing, the most positive thing I’ve done for my own health and for my son’s, is give up gluten and dairy.
At first, it seemed like an insurmountable mental shift to make to eat allergen-free. (Give up my pasta?!? NEVER!) But after taking the leap, making these simple changes, and seeing our health improve dramatically and almost immediately, it became easy and fun to do… and food actually became more delicious!
Allergies and food sensitivities are not a fad.
A lot of people are confused when they hear about kids with food allergies, and rightfully so. We think, “Nobody had peanut allergies or went gluten-free when I was a kid!” And you’re right!
According to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased as much as 50% between 1997 and 2011! Cases of celiac disease alone (an allergy to gluten) have risen more than 400 percent in the last 20 years.
Researchers estimate that 15 million Americans have diagnosed food allergies, and potentially deadly food allergies affect 1 in every 13 kids under the age of 18.
That’s an average of 2 kids in every classroom in America with food allergies.
According to FoodAllergy.org, The number of people who have a food allergy is growing, but there is no clear answer as to why (although research is showing that environmental toxins, GMOs, maternal stress at conception, overuse of antibiotics and weakened immunity play a role). In addition, there are millions of people with undiagnosed food sensitivities because oftentimes the connection between symptoms and the food we’re eating doesn’t seem obvious.
And yes, while some people have turned to gluten-free and other allergy-free diets to lose weight, the truth is that for people with food allergies and sensitivities, there is no choice; we either avoid the foods that cause us problems, or risk permanently damaging our health.
So, what’s the difference between a food allergy and a sensitivity?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. [...] In contrast, food intolerance (sensitivity) symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.”
In either case, even a tiny amount of the offending food can trigger signs and symptoms of a reaction, including digestive problems, skin irritations, high blood pressure and airway constriction.
With a food allergy, the consequence of exposure to the allergen is much more severe: even if the person has never had a serious reaction before, any exposure could cause anaphylaxis, a whole-body allergic reaction, which can be deadly.
Both food sensitivity and food allergies are diagnosed with either a skin prick test or a blood test, and both are considered a medical diagnosis. And my favorite and the most informative way to test for allergies is with an elimination diet protocol (but that is for another day…)
For people with gluten sensitivity in particular, exposure to gluten has been proven to either cause or exacerbate more than 200 different illnesses, including asthma, behavioral, developmental and thyroid problems, so many people give it up to improve their quality of life and help heal their conditions.
What are the 7 common allergens — and where do they hide?
As I’m sure you can see, for many kids and parents, living allergy-free isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a life or death choice. So it’s important for those of us who care for and about our friends and community to educate ourselves about the common allergens.
- Peanuts. There’s a reason so many schools have declared themselves a peanut-free zone: peanuts are the No. 1 cause of food allergies — and deadly anaphylaxis. Many processed and fried foods contain peanut oil or are processed in facilities that come into contact with peanuts.
- Seafood and fish. Most people with a seafood allergy are allergic to shellfish, but some are allergic to all types of fresh and saltwater fish. Shellfish allergies can cause some of the most severe anaphylaxis, even from particles in the air through steam and cooking!
- Tree nuts. Tree nuts can also cause potentially deadly anaphylaxis, and can sometimes be found in cereals, crackers, cookies, candy, chocolates, energy bars, flavored coffee, frozen desserts, marinades, barbecue sauces and even some cold cuts, such as mortadella.
- Eggs. Egg whites, in particular, cause reactions, especially in children. One common symptom of egg allergies is dermatitis: uncomfortable dry, itchy skin, but eggs can also cause anaphylaxis. In addition to baked goods, eggs can sometimes be found in pasta, marshmallows, as the wash on pretzels, and even some commercial egg-substitute products contain egg.
- Cow’s milk. The proteins in milk, such as lactoglobulin, lactalbumin, casein, and whey, are what cause the allergic reaction. Milk allergies are the most common childhood allergy, and between 2 and 7 percent of all infants are allergic to milk. Deli meat slicers are often shared with cheese, which can contaminate the meat with milk proteins, and many non-dairy products have casein, a milk protein, in them.
- Soy. Soy allergies can cause terrible gastrointestinal symptoms, and some researchers believe that the prevalence of soy-based baby formula might be the cause of the rise in soy allergies. Luckily, many children with soy allergies will eventually outgrow them. Soybeans and soy products, like soybean oil, are found in many foods, including baked goods, canned tuna and meat, cereals, cookies, crackers, high-protein energy bars and snacks, low-fat peanut butter, processed meats, sauces, and canned broths and soups.
- Wheat. A wheat allergy is different from a gluten sensitivity, but both can cause serious reactions and symptoms. About 20 percent of people allergic to wheat are also allergic to other grains. Even if you wouldn’t expect a product to contain wheat, check the label carefully; some brands of ice cream, marinara sauce, play dough, potato chips, rice cakes, turkey patties and hot dogs contain wheat.
What can you do?
Understanding and being open to learning more is the first step in creating an allergy-friendly environment, whether it’s at school, at a party, or at your home. Try to avoid passing judgement on another family’s choice to live allergy free, because you might not know all the reasons they have for doing so. Compassion is the key!
It’s especially important for us as adults to take notice and responsibility for the kids in our care. Very young children might not understand their allergy or be able to clearly verbalize their needs when their parents aren’t around. And many young children like to pop little cheats into those cheeks of theirs so you have to be on the lookout for sneaky fingers!
This is the first in a series of topics I’d like to share with you on nourishing foods and allergen-free family living. We’ll start with parties – because they are just so fun — and because I’ve been in the midst of planning an allergen-free birthday party for Bodhi who just turned six. Oh, he’s growing up so fast!
We’ll be playing host to a peanut allergy, egg allergy, gluten-allergy and dairy-allergy attending the party — no sweat! So, here are some simple and delicious party recipes I’ll be serving that you can share with someone you know who might suffer from an allergy. Enjoy!
Simple Party Recipes:
What are your favorite allergen-free recipes? Share in the comments below!