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Goodbye to all that

(article, Kathleen Holt)

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Over the past two decades — originally with college friends or boyfriends, most recently with my husband and young daughter — I’ve spent many a weekend morning participating in the very modern-day Norman Rockwell ritual of hovering outside a popular breakfast joint. 

I’ve loved every moment of it, from the anticipatory wait in the early morning chill to the excitement of finally being seated (A booth! By the window!), from the cracking open of the plastic-encased menu to the agonizing choice: Blueberry pancakes, or bacon and eggs? Hazelnut French toast, or smoked salmon benedict?

These days, if I’m on my best behavior, my choice is painfully simple: Tofu scramble with veggies, or oatmeal with soy milk. Ever since Valentine’s Day last year, when I sat in my naturopath’s light-filled attic office as she read me the results of a food-sensitivity test I’d blithely taken weeks earlier, eating has become an act of strategic deliberation.

The naturopath was calm as she flipped through the report, explaining how the few drops of blood I’d sent in a postage-paid envelope to a Seattle lab were used to test my immune system’s response to 96 different foods. This report, she said, only measured my level of immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies, which are associated with delayed, rather than immediate, reactions. It would, essentially, tell me how sensitive — rather than how allergic — I was to particular foods.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="No more dairy, no more wheat. But the berries are OK." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/mvp64"]

The first page of the results, which measured my response to dairy, fish, and vegetables, seemed harmless enough, with just one bar shooting off toward the red “high” zone. But my heart raced at the sight of the second page, which measured grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, meat, fowl, and “miscellaneous”: six bars reached into the red zone, while four others stopped just shy of red in the orange “moderate” zone. 

The red-zone offenders: whey, gluten, spelt, whole wheat, egg white, egg yolk, and pineapple. In the orange zone were almond, rye, sugar cane, and gliadin, a glycoprotein found in certain grains.

My naturopath remained measured and wise, saying, with absolute sincerity, “Well, this isn’t so bad. I’ve definitely seen worse.” Then she gave me some information about elimination diets and the phone number of a nutritionist employed by a local natural-food store. 

I knew, too, that some medical professionals question the reliability of the test. But still, my brain began tallying the bars and translating the information. I was hypersensitive to eggs, wheat, sugar, and milk? The bottom line: Breakfast, as I knew it, was over. 

Earlier this year, an article in American Scientist, the magazine published by the Scientific Research Society, reported that food allergies affect about 1 in 20 young children and 1 in 50 adults in industrialized countries. But being food-sensitive isn’t the same as having a food allergy. I don’t have to worry about the chain reaction in which one’s immune system responds to the perceived threat of a particular allergen by releasing chemicals that can immediately cause inflammation, itching, difficulty breathing, and, occasionally, death. 

I don’t have to navigate restaurants, parties, and grocery stores, an EpiPen at the ready, fearful that hidden ingredients could send me into anaphylactic shock. And I don’t have a major food intolerance, like celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which the villi of the small intestines are damaged upon ingestion of the protein gluten (and its sub-protein gliadin), which complicates the absorption of nutrients and can result in abdominal discomfort, anemia, and even malnutrition.

I’m lucky, I guess.

In fact, by the time I sat down with the nutritionist at the natural-food store a couple of weeks later, I’d begun to feel embarrassed about being food “sensitive,” a term that struck me as vaguely euphemistic and spineless: “Oh, she’s just sensitive to light, sound, and pineapples.” After all, even the symptoms that had sent me to the naturopath in the first place seemed minor and unconvincing compared to anaphylaxis and malnutrition: digestive discomfort (sensitive stomach) and rosacea (sensitive skin). 

The nutritionist walked me through the store, aisle by aisle, introducing me to a new landscape of food. In the pasta aisle, she knelt beside a small selection of rice noodles, saying, “This brand isn’t so bad.” For bread alternatives, she took me to the refrigerated section and first pulled out a dense, heavy loaf of almond bread. But then, remembering that I was moderately sensitive to almonds, she put the loaf back and found some rice bread instead, saying, “You should toast this first and keep an open mind.” 

As she walked me around the store, I began to understand how difficult it would be to navigate this new terrain. Watching for the offending foods would be the initial challenge, though I knew it would become second nature. But what I was really eliminating in this elimination diet wasn’t just food; it was the very act of eating with other people. 

Though I could still invite friends over to my house, where I could control the menu, eating with them at restaurants and their homes would be another matter. I’m as fond of food as the next person, but I’m especially fond of eating food in the company of others. Is there really anything better — anything more intimate — than tearing into a gooey pizza, sharing a pint of mint chocolate-chip ice cream, or digging into pan of lasagna with people you love? 

The nutritionist and I had stopped in the middle of the frozen-food section. Its frosty cases were full of colorful boxes that once screamed, “Convenience! Immediate gratification!” but that now screamed, “Sugar! Whey! Gluten!” Goodbye, Eggo waffles. Goodbye, ice cream. Goodbye, sausage and bacon. “What about breakfast?” I asked the nutritionist. “What can I eat for breakfast?”

[%image toast float=right width=400 caption="What do you do when your favorite eats are no longer edible?" credit="Photo: iStockphoto/redapplefalls"]

She nodded and walked me back to a table in the café. She spoke reassuringly as she wrote out a list for me: hot buckwheat cereal, rice cereal, protein smoothie with hemp, tofu scramble, apple with peanut butter.

But I didn’t want to let go of breakfast, of the cold morning air and the hard plastic menus. I didn’t want to ask waiters to read the labels on salad-dressing bottles to find hidden gluten. I didn’t want to eat carrot sticks and hummus while my husband and daughter ate pizza. I didn’t want to turn down dinner invitations or, worse, ask the host to prepare a dish without gluten, sugar, eggs, whey, almonds, or pineapple.

Because food isn’t merely fuel, and eating isn’t merely the act of filling up the tank. At best, eating is community. It is solidarity. It is proof that we love and are loved. At the very least, eating is a gesture: the offering and accepting of a gift. 

Yes, I physically feel better when I avoid the foods I should. And by not strictly avoiding my intake of offending foods, I may be laying the groundwork for serious, long-term health problems. But some days, it’s hard to weigh the needs of my body against the needs of my heart. 

And so, in the solitary patches of my days, I mitigate: No more hard-boiled eggs eaten at the kitchen sink. No more slices of pizza wolfed down between meetings. No more instant mac-and-cheese spooned straight out of the pot. 

I live instead for the rest of my days, which are, admittedly, filled with lies and half-truths. When friends invite me over for dinner and ask, “Any food restrictions?” I say, “No.” When a coworker brings around a plate of chocolate-chip cookies (eggs, gluten, sugar), I take one. When a girlfriend wants to share some flan (eggs, sugar, whey), I pick up my spoon and dig in. And when my two-year-old spears a wedge of maple-syrup-drenched pancake (eggs, gluten, sugar, whey) and holds it out for me, I lean in and gratefully accept.

p(bio). Kathleen Holt lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the editor of Oregon Humanities magazine.

toast, l

reference-image, l