I love pasta.
For most of my birthdays growing up, I insisted on pasta for dinner and watching “Mulan.”
It never occurred to me that the weird side effects I had from eating grains and dairy — bloating, gas, constipation, eczema rashes, migraines — weren’t normal.
During my freshman year of college, I told my doctor my symptoms, praying she knew what was wrong.
My diagnosis? Gluten and dairy allergies, combined with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
IBS is a pretty common intestinal disorder, causing abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. Most people don’t realize they have IBS, because it varies from person to person. Certain foods, like onion, garlic, nuts, certain fruits and dairy, disrupt an IBS sufferer’s bowels more than the typical intestines. The molecules in these foods are commonly referred to as FODMAPs — Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols.
It doesn’t help the tests for IBS, food allergies and other digestive tract issues aren’t the best. To find food allergies, the first step is to take blood. From there, doctors can use a scope to look at intestines from both ends of the body. However, there are parts of the intestines doctors can’t reach with a scope. If these unknown areas have the most scarring from food allergies or IBS, doctors wouldn’t know.
And the blood test is notoriously inaccurate. The patient would have to consume lots of food they are allergic to, just to produce a positive test. For some people, like me, that means a week or more of discomfort.
The best way to specifically find allergies is to cut the food out, write down everything eaten and feelings after eating. With about a year of experimenting, I found a list of things that didn’t irritate my stomach. The list of things I avoid, or don’t eat at all, is longer than most peoples.
My diet isn’t a choice. It’s not something I follow during the week and pig out on the weekend. It’s not an option and it’s not something I can get rid of — at least not in the near future.
For all the pre-health majors out there: someone should find a better way to test, treat and even cure food allergies.
Because I’ve been given this limited diet through genetics — thanks, Mom — I feel like I’ve learned a lot of “adult” skills much earlier than if I hadn’t found out my body was a little broken.
I can budget. When a loaf of bread costs $6, keeping a strict budget is a must. And because I know my expenses are usually more than my peers’, I know I have to put in a few more hours at work to make up the difference.
Thanks to my mom and my allergies, I grocery-shop like a pro. I plan all my meals for the week, including snacks. Then I make a list for the store.
When I’m at the store, I stick to the list. If it’s not on the list and I don’t need it, it doesn’t go in the cart. Sticking to this is hard, but it’s so satisfying to emerge from WinCo with $35 in groceries that will last me a week or more.
I can cook, too. The easiest gluten-free, dairy-free, low FODMAPs meals to make are protein and vegetables with fruit for dessert. I usually go with chicken or seafood, a cooked vegetable and a raw vegetable. This meal has endless variations, so I’m never bored and usually eating something filling and healthy.
Luckily, there are plenty of gluten-free alternatives to just about everything. I can make cookies from scratch, just like a gluten-eater could. I can have cheesy, pepperoni pizza, ice cream and lasagna. Alternative milks make it easy to drink lattes and milkshakes.
I want to make something clear — just because I feel better without gluten, doesn’t mean everyone will. If taking gluten out of one’s diet is an improvement, take it out. If there’s no difference, enjoy the gluten. I promise, gluten-free pasta is greatly improved in the last decade, but it’s not so good that gluten-eaters should buy it. Food allergies affect everyone differently, and it’s important to consult with a doctor about life-changing diets.
For example, my dairy allergy is pretty limited to dairy from cows, like milk, yogurt and cheese. Goat and sheep cheese, however, are fair game. And let me tell you, these cheeses just might be better. Other dairy-allergy sufferers can’t have any animal dairy.
Before I was enlightened, I felt terrible most every day. I didn’t have a lot of energy, I had migraines all the time and struggled to feel confident in my body.
Now, I feel great. Managing food allergies isn’t fun and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s given me plenty of adult skills.
Tess Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos