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Food allergies – could healthy eating be making you sick?

January 23, 2012

Sometimes healthy eating can feel like two steps forward, one step back. Or even one step forward, two steps back. But in my experience, this is because it can be difficult to stick with a healthy diet and occasionally we eat more sugar or fat, or less green vegetables or brightly colored fruits than we know we need.

However, just when Ben and I were eating what I felt like was an ideal diet in terms of our health, with an emphasis on getting all of the protein and nutrients that we need (with plenty of treats) through a primarily plant-based diet, we got some news which means that we have to totally re-think things. As it turns out, all of my efforts to get both of us eating the healthiest possible diet (in my view at least) were probably making Ben feel worse.

For the past few years, Ben has been trying to get to the bottom of what is causing some physical symptoms he has had. He has been diagnosed with two separate conditions which both affect his esophagus – acid reflux and eosinophilic esophagitis. The latter of these two conditions is caused by an allergic reaction, and therefore Ben had some allergy tests done about a year ago, which showed that he was allergic to dust mites, cats, horses, and a few other things. We have done our best to minimize Ben’s exposure to these allergens (e.g., we wash the sheets and we dust very frequently, and I wash all of my clothes and shower right away if I have been around horses), but in spite of our best efforts and various medications targeting both of his conditions, Ben’s symptoms have never fully gone away.

On Thursday, we went back to see an immunologist about Ben’s allergies, and we found out that Ben actually has a very wide range of food allergies (in addition to airborne allergies), which could apparently be causing all of his symptoms, including the symptoms which have thus far been attributed to acid reflux.

In the long run, this is really wonderful news because it means that we may be able to find out what is actually going on, and we may be able to do something to eliminate Ben’s tight throat and indigestion which he has suffered from for longer than I have even known him. However, in the shorter term, it is quite challenging because it means that for the next six weeks, in addition to me avoiding all dairy products (and my IBS being much better when I don’t eat too much meat), Ben needs to avoid all foods which contain any of the following:

tomatoes, soy products, peas, beans, lentils, all other legumes, bananas, oranges, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and kiwis.

The kiwis I can handle, but the first seven items listed above are building blocks of our diet lately – no tofu, no hummus, no beans, no lentils, no tomato paste or fresh or chopped tomatoes, etc. Ben seems to be allergic to all of the best sources of vegetarian protein, as well as some fruits and vegetables. In addition, in order to get to the bottom of Ben’s allergies, the doctor advised Ben not to even eat anything that says there may be traces of these ingredients, or anything that was made in a factory with any of these ingredients present. Now, I’m not sure if you have ever checked the allergy advice on food labels, but this prevents us from eating lots and lots of other foods because many companies say that their products are made in a factory where either soy or nuts were present, mostly just to prevent a lawsuit if someone is highly allergic and has an extreme reaction caused by the tiniest bit of cross-contamination. This is a bit frustrating, but I guess it is better to be safe than sorry.

I knew that these allergies would make meal planning difficult, but I had no idea just how difficult it would be. Soy, peanuts, peas (sometimes just pea protein), and tomatoes are in practically everything. For example, we had to check four different vegetable stock cube brands just to find one which was okay. In addition, Ben has to keep a food and symptom journal to try to identify any other allergens because, believe it or not, the list above is unfortunately not exhaustive. In fact, Ben was allergic to approximately a third of the foods which they tested, and this was really just a random sample of foods.

I initially took the news of Ben’s allergies quite hard because although I can of course still eat the foods Ben is allergic to, and Ben doesn’t want me to change my diet for him, we like to cook and eat together, and these are some of the highlights of my day. I do also worry slightly that it will impact the way I will feel, which is particularly important to me after I have worked so hard to find a way of eating which works well for me with my dairy intolerance and IBS (I avoid all dairy products and I feel much better if I don’t eat very much meat).

This is just the very beginning of the six week trial period, but Ben and I have worked to come up with a meal plan for this week which will be tasty and will encompass enough veggies for me with enough things Ben can eat as well. At least for this week, and probably for the next few weeks, we will be cooking with a bit more meat, which, depending on your own diet, this may be a good or a bad thing. But either way, this is what we feel need to do right now while we get to the bottom of Ben’s allergies, and I will make adjustments for myself if I need to. I will still be posting plenty of recipes for healthier baked goods and vegetarian and vegan foods, but please stick with me through this challenge while we experiment with some new foods as well. I promise there will be options available for everyone.

Although at times I am sure this will feel like a pain in the backside rather than a fun challenge, the truth is, I don’t know anyone other than Ben who would give up so many foods and also try so many new foods in order to help me find a diet which makes me feel my best. Therefore, the very least I can do is help Ben find a diet which makes him feel his best. And in time, we will have to figure out what works for both of us, and hopefully Ben won’t have to avoid all of these foods forever. Fingers crossed!

In the meantime, Ben is already feeling a bit better, which makes all of the effort worthwhile.

Do you have any food allergies? If so, what are you allergic to and what symptoms do you have? Within the past couple of days, I have found out that food allergies can manifest themselves as a stuffy nose or a tight throat, or feel like acid indigestion. Now I am curious about how else people might react to a food allergy, and I am wondering if more people have food allergies than we think.

Disclaimer: Although I am very interested in all of the topics I write about, and I would love to hear about your experiences, please remember that I am not an immunologist, dietitian, or nutritionist. This post is simply a reflection of my personal views and experiences, and not meant to directly advise anyone on their own diets, allergies, or medical conditions. Please see my disclaimer page for more information.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 1:54 pm

    Hi Emily, I feel relly sorry for you and Ben by reading this, but on the other hand – if there is any couple in the whole world that will find a way through this challange, it is the two of you:) The way you describes your allergies and problems related to them shows a refelective and well-educated (as far as i know) view, and that is a huge source of power in this situation I believe. I am sure you and Ben will figure this out. Big hug from Mariann:)

    • January 23, 2012 2:39 pm

      Thank you very much Mariann!!! I think we know quite a bit about food allergies (for better or worse ;-)), but I have a feeling we will learn a lot more in the coming weeks! We certainly won’t be easy to cook for, though!

      I will watch your blog for ideas, and if you happen to have any suggestions or think of any recipes which might work, I would love to hear about them.
      It’s always fun to see what you are cooking. 🙂

      Big hugs to all three of you!

  2. January 24, 2012 8:43 am

    Tough but you guys will get through it!
    The body is a fluid and wonderous thing – maybe a few years from now, there will be a body reset treatment that can help minimize the effects of allergies.

    At least, that’s what I am hoping 🙂

  3. Melanie permalink
    January 24, 2012 12:31 pm

    Hi Emily!
    Can Ben eat Seitan? It’s a great alternative to tofu? It’s gluten based, so I am not sure if that is alright for you? Maybe you’ve already tried it?
    Hope you guys are able to find a happy medium for your diets… 🙂

    • January 25, 2012 11:04 am

      Hi Melanie! Thanks so much for your comment! 🙂 It’s funny that you mention Seitan. I have never tried it, but I was just reading a book on Sunday about different grains and pulses, and realized that it isn’t soy-based (which I had always assumed it was). I think we should both be able to eat it, so we will have to try it! Have you cooked with it or eaten it before?

      Hope to see you soon!

  4. January 25, 2012 8:20 pm

    My heart breaks reading about this! You (both) have such a good attitude about figuring out how to work with your dietary restrictions. It shows how much you care about each other 🙂 I can only imagine how frustrating & challenging this must be, so great job with your positive approach to it! Hopefully you will find a good repertoire of recipes that are easy on both of your stomachs, and that are also tasty! Best of luck.

    • January 25, 2012 9:54 pm

      Aww, thank you Emily! I was definitely overwhelmed at first, but really, I guess we are lucky that we are both healthy and just have to eat carefully (very carefully for now!). 🙂 Hopefully after this trial period we can add a few things back in that we’ve cut out, or it is possible that allergy shots might help with Ben’s allergies, and I think he would be very happy to have the shots if it meant he could eat what he wanted again. Time will tell I guess!


  5. January 26, 2012 12:59 am

    Oh Emily, I really feel for you with this. The lists here aren’t quite as long, but they can be difficult to get around sometimes. Coming up with foods we can all eat at the same time can be complicating. I need to be better about planning though. I’ve kind of stepped away from it for awhile, but I see this leaning towards me making multiple meals at one meal and that is just too time consuming. I do think genetically modified foods are a HUGE issue with us now. I try to eat the best I can and feed our family the best I can, but I still find myself standing in the store wondering if the pesticides on my tomatoes are harming us too…which I’m sure they are. I’m thinking about you guys and I hope Ben feels better soon!

    • January 26, 2012 6:24 pm

      Hi Sarena,

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I guess there are probably way more people with food allergies than I ever realized – but it’s way more difficult when people in the same house have different allergies. I’m not totally sure if planning things we can both eat, or cooking two meals at a time will be easier, but time will tell. 🙂 Do you always make separate foods for separate people? I think we will have to play around with non-GM and organic foods too.

      Thanks again for your kind words, and I would be interested to read about any tips you have for cooking for people with different food allergies if you ever feel like blogging about it. 🙂


  6. Heidi Silventoinen permalink
    January 26, 2012 10:31 am

    My cousin has all the same allergies as Ben does and tons more. The doctor has given her a list with appr. 60 different things on it which she can’t eat. And the doctor told her that if she is allergic to certain things like tomates and beans and soy, she is very likely to be allergic to rest of the things on the list (lots of different spices and mustard seeds and so on..) so now she has the list with her at all times and in the restaurants she needs to give the list to the waiter so they can give to the chef.. (most restaurants atleast in Finland use soy sauce, mustard seeds and the spices (I can’t remeber which ones are on the list) in their sauces and marinades) It is really difficult to plan what we are eating when we get together wiht our relatives (it is quite often). One of us can’t have gluten, one can’t have any lactose or if it is only low-lactose he needs to take the pills and then one doesn’t eat red meat and the the one is multi allergenic.. so I really hope that Ben won’t get all the allergies my cousin has…

    • January 26, 2012 6:31 pm

      Oh my goodness, Heidi! Your poor cousin! And your poor family when all of you get together. That is so difficult. I suspect that Ben is allergic to lots more things too, so it’s useful to hear some of the things your cousin is allergic to since, as you say, it seems that people are allergic to groups of foods.And it sounds like a good idea to bring a list to restaurants – I guess we will have to do this now too.

      Has your cousin ever looked into allergy shots? My brother (Will) had these done for his allergies several years ago (he got a stuffy nose from his allergies, which included food allergies), and now he can eat whatever he wants. I am hoping these might help Ben as well, but we have to ask the doctor next time we go in to see him.

      I will be posting some allergy friendly foods over the next few days and weeks, so maybe there will be something all of your family would be able to eat. 😉 It sounds almost impossible though!

      Hope you are having a good Thursday!

  7. January 31, 2012 11:11 am

    Hello There, I feel for you here. My girlfriend is on a very strict eating regime and this makes planning and eating well a real challenge. No eating out and alot of creativity required with vegetables. The worst is the lack of carbs, it can run you down, especially when you’re trying to lead an active life. Hope all goes well. Great blog btw. Im liking the wlanut pesto. Peace, Lee

    • January 31, 2012 5:49 pm

      Hi Lee!

      Thanks so much for finding me, and for your nice comment. I can imagine that a lack of carbs would be really difficult, although at the moment it feels like this is practically all that Ben and I can both eat! 😉

      Hope you find some more recipes you can use on here, and that you continue to enjoy the mushroom pesto! It is one of my favorites!


  8. February 3, 2012 7:49 pm

    Hi Emily! I stumbled upon your blog while looking up dairy free recipes. I can’t digest lactose at all, so almost exactly a year ago I went dairy free! Yes, it is very hard, you’d never think to look in the ingredients list for milk but it’s almost always there. (and whey and all the other code names milk goes by). I became a vegetarian about 2 weeks ago and have been struggling to find good meals that do not include dairy (cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese!) Although many sources say that cheese has a very low lactose index, I still manage to get “lactose cramps” as I call them every time I eat cheese. I’ve noticed lately that butter is getting to me too. I’m starting to wonder if it’s a different ingredient in milk that I am allergic to. I am going to go the doctor soon and get tested for allergies (I’m allergic to basically everything outside, so I know I have those kinds of allergies). And although I know it would condense my food circle even more, at least I would know what’s upsetting my stomach. I also have acid reflux and IBS and currently take Nexium for it, but being a college student, I’m not sure if I want to continue my $40 monthly prescription of this medicine. There’s got to be a way to fix it by altering the foods I eat. Anyway, after that long winded explanation, I’m basically telling you that I’m subscribing so I can get your great dairy free advice! Good wishes to you and your husband!

    • February 4, 2012 4:04 pm

      Hi Lauren,

      That sounds really frustrating. It is definitely difficult avoiding all dairy products, but it does get easier. Checking everything becomes second nature I guess, and I have found tons of foods I love, to the point that I really don’t miss dairy products anymore.

      I am not an expert on food allergies or intolerances, but I can’t have any milk products at all – no butter, no cheese, no yogurt, no ice cream, no baked goods with any dairy products, etc….and if you are sensitive to milk and cheese and butter, and you get stomach cramps, then it sounds like it probably is lactose intolerance. All of these foods contain lactose, and I definitely can’t have even a tiny bit of any of them. In addition, I think that most (or at least many) people with IBS have a hard time tolerating dairy products, so it could be that your IBS makes you sensitive to dairy products even if it isn’t lactose intolerance. It sounds very useful to see a doctor and talk everything through, particularly because once you stop eating any dairy products, it becomes even harder to digest them, as your body produces less and less of the lactase enzyme needed to break down lactose. For me, this is worth it because even a small amount of lactose makes me sick anyway, and I feel a million times better without any dairy products…but it is just something to keep in mind in case you aren’t lactose intolerant, or aren’t as severely lactose intolerant as me.

      I hope you manage to get to the bottom of your allergies, and I hope you enjoy the recipes/info on the blog. Please feel free to get in touch anytime. 🙂 I know how frustrating it can be at times.


  9. February 12, 2012 3:00 am

    I remember the first time the docs sent me to a dietician. She interviewed me about my diet, and then burst out laughing. I was eating exactly what she would try to get most of her patients to eat, and it was 180 degrees off from what *I* needed to eat for my own health conditions. Vegetarian? Low fat? Really bad for me. I needed a high protein, high fat, low carb, high iron diet. In small portions, obviously.

    Since then we’ve found that my son can’t have any artificial food additives, especially food coloring, and I can’t have gluten, and my daughter can’t have milk. I suspect both my kids will end up needing to go gluten-free also. We have other food sensitivities also, and finding anything safe to drink is a big problem for me. No milk, tea, caffeine, soda, lemon, and can’t have most herbal teas either. (They’ll usually have rosehips, roasted barley, grasses, or rooibos, none of which I can have.) One of the best finds for me and my daughter has been quinoa, which I think you already know about. The single best source of plant protein, an absolutely amazing food, easy to cook and can be substituted in most rice dishes.

    • February 13, 2012 11:41 am


      Thank you so much for your message. It is amazing to think that eating such a healthy diet could make us feel worse, isn’t it?! I guess it just shows that we are all different, and our bodies need different things. It has made me wonder just how many people would benefit from seeing a nutritionist/dietitian. So many people seem to be impacted by food allergies, and if Ben hadn’t been tested, he would have continued to suffer without understanding why.

      It sounds like you have quite a challenge on your hands! It is difficult enough with just two of us, but you have even more people to consider. I am very impressed. I would love to know how you have managed to work around all of the different allergies and intolerances. And yes, quinoa has been a saving grace for us, but thank you so much for the suggestion. I am always open to new tips!

      I hope you find some recipes which work for you on my blog, and I would love to hear any ideas you have along the way. 🙂



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