Off the menu

Tuesday 17th January, 2023

It has become quite trendy in modern times to have a food allergy or intolerance. Most restaurants ask if you would like a special menu, supermarkets all have their own free-from ranges, and even "normal" food has to put the most common allergens in bold. As someone who hates trendy things, I would roll my eyes and take a normal menu. As a lifelong eczema sufferer, I secretly toyed with the idea of cutting out dairy, but never took it very seriously. The idea of going through the pain of cutting out dairy on the off-chance it would help me seemed like a lot of effort, and medical opinion seemed to be that the science is not quite there with blood and hair food allergy tests. And so, it became one of the many things I was going to try "one day".

That day came during the first covid lockdown when fate pushed my hand, or rather my Health Visitor did, when she suggested that the reason my exclusively breastfed baby was constantly vomiting could be due to dairy intolerance. No dairy for baby meant no dairy for me.

As is the way with parents, my baby's health made me take action a lot faster than the decades that I had ignored my own health. I totally cut out all cow milk, cheese and butter. I diligently read labels and bought vegan cheese, coconut milk, almond milk, hazelnut milk, and dark chocolate. I even cut out soya for good measure, because Dr Google told me that dairy and soya intolerances often go hand in hand. I covered everything in nutritional yeast because that is meant to make everything taste like cheese (spoiler alert - it doesn't).

The results were remarkable, within a few days he stopped being sick, he slept better and life improved dramatically. At least…it did for him. For me, the journey was just beginning. As my baby became the epitome of health, I became sick and itchy and snotty and bloated. It became clear that I had replaced dairy with poison.

In a way this turn of events was positive, as it confirmed my long-held suspicions that my skin issues were food related. All I needed to do was to identify the culprit and cut it out as well as dairy. Then my skin would be perfect and my modelling career would follow. Now…what had I been eating more of to make up for the lack of dairy?

After over a month of randomly cutting out various food and getting nowhere, I decided to go against everything I believe in and do a 'pay extortionate amounts of money for a scientifically questionable' blood test. I didn't believe in them, but by this stage I had been sick and itchy and snotty and bloated for about 2 months, we were still in peak first-covid-lockdown times and I still had to look after a baby and a toddler. I figured it would tell me the thing that was doing this to me, and I could cut it out and see if the results backed the pseudo-science. Since I was doing it anyway, I went all in and got allergy and intolerance blood tests. They sent me little needles and vials and I had a most unpleasant time pricking my finger repeatedly trying to produce the litres of blood the vampires wanted from me. Okay okay it was a few millilitres and I am a wimp.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and I got my results. I was so excited to find the holy grail, what was the culinary demon causing me this discomfort, now I would finally be free as soon as I cut out…

Allergies: soya, egg white, "meat mix" (chicken, pork, lamb and beef), potatoes, carrots, apples, peaches, almonds, hazelnuts, shrimp, salmon, rice, crab

Intolerances: yeast, dairy, egg yolk, egg white, pepper, nutmeg

I stared at the list for some time trying to take it in. Surely there had been a mistake. This was not the single silver bullet that was going to save all my problems. Not one thing that would be a minor inconvenience to cut out. Why would they test egg whites and yolks separately, but mix together the meats? Who does that??

A few days after getting the results I had a call with a consultant (included with the tests) to advise me of how to proceed. I was confident that while my results seemed impossible from my point of view, the experts would deal with people like me every day. However, as it turned out the lovely expert I spoke to clearly had no idea what to advise me. All of her standard responses for what to have instead of "insert now banned food here" included another now banned food. By the end of it I had little more idea than when I started.

Since it seemed insurmountable and I don't believe in food tests, I very nearly didn't follow the restrictions. However, I was desperate to feel better and had no other options. Also, the tests had cost so much that it seemed childish to ignore the results. So it was time to research and plan. There were many, many upsetting discoveries, but here are some highlights:

Dairy free cheese mostly has yeast in it and / or almonds and / or hazelnut and / or soya and / or potato.

Most "free-from" products have potato and / or rice and / or soya.

Carrots and apples are common and cheap, and are therefore used to bulk out a huge amount of juices and soups.

Yeast is in EVERYTHING. You may think no yeast just means no bread but think again. Check the ingredients of a few products in your home and it won't take long before you find yeast extract. Cloudy fruit like grapes have yeast on them. Vinegar has yeast in it. Also, if something says "flavourings" in the ingredients, that probably means yeast so it is safest to avoid. Oh, and no yeast means no alcohol apart from gin and vodka because they are so filtered. Oh but wait…I can't have vodka because potatoes.

The one saving grace was that it couldn't have happened at a more appropriate time. Pandemic lockdowns were starting to get less restrictive, but we still weren't eating out. Even the trendiest gluten free vegan establishments would not cater to that level of dietary restriction. However, I countered that with the extra annoyance of 2 young kids and a fussy partner (prior to meeting me I am pretty sure he ate nothing but pizza and pies).

So I started my impossible everything-free diet. Turkey and lentils. Turkey and pasta. Turkey and sweet potatoes. Turkey and quorn. Turkey and homemade flat bread. Bless my parents, they made turkey chia seed meatloaf, turkey sausages, turkey oat meatballs, and did their best to find new and exciting sides (cassava, quinoa, polenta). My mum can now make amazing dairy free ice cream, as well as bake egg and dairy free cakes, cookies, brownies, custard tarts…she could probably open a vegan bakery.

Much to my surprise, the experiment supported the pseudo-science and it kind of worked. I no longer felt bloated at all. My eyes stopped itching. My energy levels increased. Weirdly, aches and pains that I thought were age-related disappeared. Sadly it did not fix my skin. Sorry for the anti-climax.

Unfortunately, reintroductions of the have proved inconclusive. Yeast is probably the worst culprit, and I think was the reason for everything going so horribly wrong when I first gave up dairy, but it is in EVERYTHING! Potatoes and apples make my lips tingle. Some dairy makes me bloated, but not every time. Nearly all of the many many items on my list cause some sort of mild irritation, but apparently the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

Since life is nearly back to pre-covid normal (post-pandemic new normal whatever we are calling it now) it has been impossible to avoid eating forbidden fruits (and forbidden meats, vegetables, cheeses, breads). Perhaps I am destined to a life of occasional tingly lips, bloating and itchy eyes. The main thing is that I now have a happy, healthy 3-year-old who can happily eat moderate amounts of dairy without puking on me.

So, if you are like I used to be and you scoff at dairy / gluten / nut / taste free menus, remember that not everyone does it to be in with the in crowd. Just because someone doesn't go into anaphylactic shock it doesn't mean that eating the wrong thing won't ruin their evening. And, if you are considering taking a scientifically questionable food allergy or intolerance test, be warned…it could change your life.

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