When I first saw the 1988 movie “The Accidental Tourist” I was 17 years old. Great film, dry humor, and the first real look at Gina Davis I got. One thing stood out for me – Muriel’s (Davis) son’s (Robert Gorman) conversation with Macon (William Hurt), about pizza:
Alexander: I’m allergic to pizza.
Macon: What part? What part are you allergic to? Pepperoni? Sausage? Mushrooms? We can take it off.
Alexander: All of it.
Macon: Can’t be allergic to all of it.
Alexander: Well, I am.
I remember being astonished that someone could basically be allergic to everything on a pizza. However, I pretty much am, being unable to eat the crust, tomato sauce, pepperoni, and sausage. I realize now that film was pretty ahead of its time when it came to bringing up food allergies.
Discovering one’s food intolerances can be a tricky process. If a person has an obvious reaction to a certain food, such as an allergic reaction that shows up as a histamine reaction or, worst case scenario, an anaphylactic reaction (which can be fatal), then it’s a little easier to discover and eliminate the problem food from a person’s diet.
However, there are several types of reactions to food, including allergy, of which there are two main types, and intolerance, which may take the form of an autoimmune reaction or a toxic reaction to a food.
I have discovered over the last 11 years many foods my body doesn’t like to process, covering all the above types of reactions except anaphylactic.
It’s a pretty big list of food items I have to avoid in order to feel my best, and many people ask me how I first learned I had food issues to begin with. It wasn’t an easy process and I ended up having to do a lot of thinking with my gut to get it all figured out.
When I was growing up, I often had seasonal allergies such as so-called hayfever as well as being plagued with headaches (they were thought to be tension-type headaches, but much later were recognized as migraines).
At 14 I was taken to an allergist who tested me with the standard skin allergy test and found that I was allergic to grasses, ragweed, spruce, various tree nut pollens, and some molds. Oh, and green peas. But not dairy, wheat, or eggs.
I had never noticed any reaction to eating green peas so I figured it was either a fluke or maybe it was one of those things where my body already had to be in an allergic-reaction state before anything happened.
I took allergy shots for a year and have found that my life didn’t change much at all, so I stopped.
I still suffered from headaches and hayfever, plus I also felt run down, got sick a lot, and had digestive problems which were diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome when I was 22.
I had developed an extreme dislike for some foods by that point, including corn oil, potato skins, tomatoes, eggplant, and bell peppers. My mom would fry sliced potatoes (with skins) in a cast iron skillet and vegetable oil every Sunday to eat while watching the football game and I would have to leave the house because the smell would make me sick to my stomach (I had twice gotten a stomach flu the same day I’d eaten these potatoes, that scent memory is a strong thing).
For my 23rd birthday, I came home from work and made myself a big dish of mashed potatoes, from real potatoes (no mix) and left the skins on because they are supposed to be good for you. Two hours later I started feeling sick and ended up spending the rest of the evening throwing up. I thought I’d been food poisoned. It was my worst birthday on record.
The summer I turned 28, a friend had given me a bunch of fresh tomatoes and peppers from their garden, so I decided to cook up a huge pot of spaghetti sauce. While I usually preferred pesto or alfredo, I appreciated a good, homemade red sauce from time to time, plus I love everything about cooking (well, except for the dishes!).
However, an hour after I had some of the sauce on some spaghetti, I developed a severe migraine and stomach ache. Lying in bed, my mind was going different places, and I thought of a friend who had just recently told me about “nightshade” vegetables and how they have a negative effect on some people with arthritis. Though it was seemingly unconnected, I suddenly wanted to know more about nightshades!
Nightshade vegetables include: potatoes (except sweet potatoes and yams), tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, spicy peppers (except black/white pepper), tobacco, and kava kava. Jimson weed is also a nightshade, as are choke cherries and tomatillos.
In 1999, information about food allergies and intolerances was pretty limited, especially for untraditional food issues. Nightshades were connected to arthritis and joint pain, but little else.
I was able to find on the internet that this “family” of foods have some things in common, namely alkaloids, and the most common is solanine. Some research indicated that solanine is not always properly metabolized, which results in its being recognized in the body as a toxin. In potatoes, about 80% of this alkaloid is concentrated in the skin, and extremely high amounts are found in potatoes with green patches or eyes, which is why it’s important to cut those off before cooking.
I learned that when people get sick from eating potato salad at potlucks, they most often blame the mayonnaise or hard boiled eggs, when it’s most often the high amount of solanine in the potatoes that may have been left behind because of a missed eye or green patch.
So I stopped eating potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. It wasn’t easy by any means. I loved french fries (the kinds with no skin), I loved baked potatoes, I loved Mexican and Thai food. There are no easy replacements for these items.
I found initially I could still get away with a few things. Some items like processed tomato paste or french fries, if limited to, say, 10, would not cause symptoms in me. But then I noticed eating french fries two days in a row would make me sick. Then I could only eat 5 at a time. The last time I tried, I was sick with a blinding migraine about eight hours after eating only one.
The good news was, after 28 years of my life suffering from digestive problems and migraines, I was feeling better. The nearly daily migraine suddenly only came up once or twice a month. That was a big deal! However, if I accidentally got something I wasn’t supposed to eat, such as chili powder on a cracker or paprika on a deviled egg, I would get sick. I found that even if I removed all the pieces of tomato floating in a broth and ate the broth, I would still get sick.
Plus, now my symptoms were much stronger. My body liked not having to contend with these food items. So when I slipped up, I paid big time. Beside the blinding migraine, I would develop severe stomach pains that felt like the interior of my gastrointestinal tract was sunburned, including my throat and my intestines.
This would usually worsen and peak at some point, then fade back out, taking two to three days to complete itself. And the worst thing was, sometimes it would take 24 hours before the symptoms would start, so I would have to question everything I ate over the last couple of days, sometimes blaming the wrong thing.
My faith in being able to have a “safe” meal in a restaurant was very low, especially since whenever I told anyone I couldn’t eat potatoes or tomatoes, they looked at me like I was nuts.
It’s gotten better. Food allergies and intolerances have become much better understood, not only by science and medical professionals, but by the public as well.
Restaurants are getting better at offering special menu items for those who must avoid some of the more common items, such as gluten. Several restaurant chains now offer gluten-free menus suited for those who must avoid gluten because they have been diagnosed with celiac disease, or have other medical conditions that benefit from avoidance of this grain protein.
Some restaurants that have special gluten-free menus include: Outback Steakhouse, P.F. Changs, and The Old Spaghetti Factory. There are numerous online resources for finding restaurants that offer menu items that are gluten-free.
Next: Going Against The Grain, or How I Discovered My Food Intolerances, part 2
And then: Full Circle, or How I Discovered My Food Intolerances, part 3