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Living with food restrictions

Photo illustration by Mathias MacPhee

KOSHER, LACTOSE INTOLERANT, gluten-free, macrobiotic. Gone are the days when everyone ate meat and potatoes. Today, individuals follow special diets for as many reasons as there are types of cuisine; religious practices, ideological beliefs, and allergies can all play a part. Four foodies share their experiences living on different diets and offer students a spoonful of advice.

Nuts to you
Although allergies are probably among the most common food restrictions, living with them is no picnic. In fact, often the hardest part about having a life-threatening allergy is trying to explain it to people.

Sounds crazy, right? But many people don’t understand how allergies work. The first time I had an allergy “attack”—as it’s commonly referred to—I was 16 and working my first day at Starbucks. A supervisor told me to try a nut bar so I could tell customers what it tasted like. Well, I soon tasted a closed throat, because she hadn’t bothered to look at the ingredients after I told her that cashews and pistachios could kill me.

My supervisor offered me Benadryl, which is laughable. The only allergy medication that will help me when I have a reaction is my EpiPen, a pre-filled automatic injection device—basically a huge needle—that administers epinephrine. I have to carry it around with me everywhere. It’s saved my life three times.

“Well, you have an EpiPen,” is an incredibly aggravating response to hear when I ask people not to mix their nut-filled food with my own. Yes, I have an EpiPen—one that has only enough medication to last 15 minutes, which is just enough time for an ambulance to arrive. Contrary to popular belief, an EpiPen is not a pill I pop that will make the problem go away. A reaction is a long process, and staying alive involves being rushed to the hospital, an IV drip, and being kept and monitored for a minimum of four hours.

The epinephrine injection also gives me the sensation of pure panic—the medication is adrenaline. While I wait for the ambulance, the only thought running through my mind is that at any moment, I will die. To me, an allergic reaction is a huge deal.

Not everyone reacts the same way I do. Some people get hives, and some people really do swell up like they do in the movies. Each attack is usually worse than the one before. The more your body is exposed to allergens, the more it starts recognizing them as deadly intruders, so the reactions become progressively worse. I’m as careful as I can be, but sometimes accidents happen.

Despite the severity of my allergy, when I mention it to those around me, the attitude I get is that I’m somehow inconveniencing people. I’ve had eye rolls, strange looks, and people joking that I’ve made the waitress work harder. Even my mother doesn’t really understand—she acts as though I’m being picky when I refuse to submit to our family’s tradition of sharing all our takeout.

My allergy affects my life in little ways. It means that on girls’ nights out I can’t bring cute little clutch purses because my EpiPen won’t fit inside. It means that for the first 12 years of my life, I wore a fanny pack—yes, it was horrible.
I bite my tongue at places that tell me I can’t order anything because of the allergy, when I’d like to tell them they’re losing business by not bothering to keep certain foods separate. It’s not just my business, either: Any time I find out a restaurant won’t serve me, my friends and I go elsewhere. My boyfriend has had to give up nuts completely, for fear of killing me with his kisses.

Living with an allergy can be annoying at times; it requires constantly being alert and constantly asking hosts and waiters what’s in my food. But my biggest complaint is people who somehow think that my allergy is a preference. It’s not meant to inconvenience others: It’s a lethal condition, and I appreciate it when other people recognize that, too.

—Charlotte Bailey

SEE ALSO: Diary of the worst vegetarian ever

The hipster diet
In the nearly four years since I became a vegan, the most common questions I get are, “Why would you give up cheeeeeese? Or ice cream? Or steak?” For non-vegans, the restrictions of a vegan lifestyle—no meat, eggs, dairy, or even honey—seem enormous, and the benefits inconsequential.

To be perfectly honest, I first became vegan because, as an 18-year-old high school student with a fledgling sense of identity, I craved a little individuality. Being from a traditional meat-and-potatoes German family, veganism was the easiest option. Tattoos seemed too painful, and punk rock just isn’t my style.

Since my initial rebellion (if you can even call it that), my veganism has changed from the everyday restrictions—cake and ice cream I won’t indulge in at birthdays, the nuisance of reading nutrition facts on packaging—to a way of reducing my carbon footprint.

The most basic of Google searches demonstrates the stark contrast between a meat-based and plant-based diet. According to a report from Mercy For Animals Canada, the production of a single pound of animal protein uses six to 17 times as much land as the production of a single pound of soy protein. The report also asserts that nearly 90 per cent of all chickens cannot walk normally in the days before they are slaughtered, partially because of the excessive amount of weight they’ve gained.

In four years, I’ve also developed an understanding that it is unnecessary to consume violence—to legitimize the processes and business strategies of meat manufacturers by consuming meat—in order to function at your individual best.

I may be concerned about animal rights, but I certainly don’t share the same values that some of the more outspoken and controversial vegans do. In four years of following this diet, I’ve gone from a mild dislike for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to being repulsed by the organization’s tactics, deceit, and use of overt sexism and misogyny to vilify meat manufacturers and consumers.

For me, a basic meal consists of something green, a protein, a superfood, and hot sauce. Is it healthy? When I cook for myself, mostly. Is it cheap? Most definitely—eliminate $7 bags of milk and you’ve saved enough for at least a semester’s worth of textbooks. A can of beans is significantly less expensive than a similarly portioned animal product; for cash-strapped students, the “unintentionally vegetarian” label is a common occurrence at the grocery store.
Eliminating the meat and potato staples from your diet forces you to experiment with flavours and cuisines you may have otherwise overlooked. Indian pickled mangoes with roti? Divine. Ethiopian wot served atop injera? Out-of-this-world good.

In downtown Ottawa, where pubs line most streets, eating out with non-vegans often becomes a matter of a pre-meal snack followed by a plate of fries as dinner, unless, of course, their palates are open to flavours of the world.
For me, veganism may have started as an exercise in vanity, but has developed into a lifestyle choice—full of contradictions and everyday annoyances, sure, but a lifestyle that aligns my everyday decisions with my perspective and core values.

—Jessie Willms

Splenda… Ah honey, honey
Just like any new and exciting relationship, my first encounter with diabetes left me weak in the knees. I was standing up from the breakfast table when pinprick stars crowded my vision and my legs gave out. I rushed to the sofa and collapsed, holding my forehead and wondering what had just happened.

After sitting shakily through that day’s classes, I went to the campus clinic at the University of Victoria, where I was currently in the spring of my second year. The doctor gave me a blood test requisition, and I went to the lab the next day.

The results? I was pre-diabetic. That meant my blood-sugar levels were higher than normal, but with proper preventive care, I wouldn’t necessarily progress to full diabetes. Well, three diligent, sugar-free months later, that’s exactly what I got. My body was diabetic, regardless of how many hickory sticks I swapped for celery sticks.

I have Type 2 diabetes, the kind usually found in much older people, so for more reasons than just the usual self-pity, I couldn’t help but wonder over the next few weeks, “why me?” It is true that Type 2 is becoming more common in younger adults and even children due to high levels of obesity, but although I could have stood to lose 10 pounds and liked the occasional treat, I didn’t think I was that bad. A possible factor that might have made me more susceptible was genetics—my grandmother died of complications from the disease.

The basic distinction between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes is that Type 1 patients’ pancreases don’t produce insulin (therefore insulin injections are required) and Type 2 patients’ pancreases don’t produce enough insulin, and/or the insulin they do produce is ineffective in breaking down the sugars in their blood. Type 2 patients usually don’t need insulin, at least not right away. We can manage by diet and exercise alone.

Thankfully for diabetics these days, there are a lot of sugar-free alternatives to just about every type of dessert. If you can’t find it in the store, you can make it yourself. Splenda is my favourite kind of sweetener, and is proven to be one of the healthiest, too; however, there are hazards to artificial sweeteners as well: I once put powdered aspartame into my chamomile tea because the café I was at had no other sugar alternatives—it tasted like something you would find in a chemistry lab.

A diabetic’s diet is pretty simple, and there’s no reason everyone can’t follow it. Sugars should be avoided, obviously, and healthy sugars (like in fruit) should be limited and chosen carefully. Little known health tip: always choose berries over bananas.

Other things a diabetic must forgo are saturated fats (don’t even get me started on trans fats), high-cholesterol foods, and refined flours. Vegetables: 1, junk food: 0. It’s pretty much like any healthy diet.

The only sweets diabetics are allowed is the emergency stash of glucose tablets we carry in case of sudden drops in blood sugar. I’ve had a few, and it was some small comfort amidst my dizziness and shaking hands to feel that rare sweetness spreading on my tongue.

You know the phrase, “You’ll thank me later”? Well, say it to yourself every time you reach for a whole-grain slice of bread instead of a croissant. And hey, maybe your body is destined for disease, like mine seemed to be, but at least this way you can’t say you didn’t try.

—Julia Fabian

What do you eat?
When I tell people I’m allergic to meat and dairy, the standard response is, “Really? Meat and dairy? What do you eat?” My response is that I eat a lot of things—most likely a wider variety of foods than the majority of people I know.

I first started having trouble when I was 14. I lost the ability to digest meat, so I cut it out of my diet. However, the digestion issue soon progressed to include most foods. Every time I ate, I braced myself for the pain and cramping that would immediately follow and last for hours. Despite forcing myself to eat, I was losing weight rapidly. I also slipped into a severe depression accompanied by acute anxiety.

I was in and out of the doctor’s office and hospitalized multiple times for various mental issues and bizarre physical ailments during high school. Doctors told me I had irritable bowel syndrome and that mental illness was programmed into my family’s genes. I was prescribed muscle relaxants, pain killers, Prozac, Lorazepam, and a handful of antibiotics, but I wasn’t getting better and I felt I had exhausted every medical avenue.

I hit my breaking point when I collapsed during a backpacking trip in Algonquin Park and was airlifted out by a float plane—this after a year of medical ups and downs that prevented me from pursuing a number of opportunities.
I decided to try visiting a naturopath, someone who focuses on a holistic approach to health with non-invasive treatment and minimal use of surgery or drugs. I’m so glad I did. I took a blood-based food allergy test and within three weeks I was handed a sheet of paper that gave me an answer, albeit one that was hard-to-swallow. I was allergic to everything.

I discovered I suffer from a condition called gastrointestinal anaphylaxis. When I eat something I’m allergic to, my digestive organs swell. If I eat too much of an allergen, the lining of my digestive tract breaks down. At the time, small holes were forming in my organs, causing the food I ate to leak into my blood stream (also known as leaky gut syndrome), and leaving me in a permanently malnourished state.

Once I cut out the worst offending foods in my diet, my life turned around completely. Within a few short months I had regained weight, my depression and anxiety had evaporated, I no longer experienced an “irritable bowel” condition, and I was medication-free. Three years later, my body has healed an incredible amount and my most recent food allergy test indicates I am now only allergic to meat and dairy. A small victory with major benefits!

I eat a mostly vegan diet, but I still have the odd egg or piece of fish—I just couldn’t give up sushi. The plant-based diet I’m on is a lot easier to digest, leaving me with a ton of energy and improved physical stamina. I avoid unhealthy sweeteners, opting for alternatives such as honey and agave nectar, which don’t result in sugar crashes and have numerous health benefits. I have also sworn off antibiotics entirely. I now take a preventative approach and include probiotics and food with live bacterial cultures in my daily diet.

This lifestyle is not always budget-friendly, but if I’m going to splurge on anything at this point it’s definitely my health. Luckily the health-food market is rapidly growing, drawing prices down as competition increases. Restaurants are also hopping on board, and I find most places are willing to cater to my food restrictions if they don’t already have a vegetarian or vegan option available.

If you’re thinking about changing your diet, I highly recommend checking in with a doctor, nutritionist, or naturopath first. I’m not trying to discredit the medical industry—I realize medical advances save lives every day. I simply believe it’s important to recognize the merits of alternative health systems as well. This path has given me and many others with my condition a state of well-being once thought to be impossible.

—Jessica McCuaig