13 December 2011 ~ 16 Comments

Food Intolerances and Cultivating Tolerance

Since I’ve been eating an allergen-free diet, I have encountered a whole host of ignorant and simply erroneous comments. I know that this is all too common among those of us with food intolerances/allergies and that is why I am writing this article because I know that many of you will be able to relate. Some comments are amusing and well meant, others are tactless and others are just downright ignorant and cruel. It seems that people get particularly fired up when it comes to the topic of gluten intolerance. This is partly because thyroid disease and gluten intolerance/celiac disease often go hand in hand and many people have reported an improvement in their symptoms and sometimes even a lowering of their dosage and of their antibodies when they switched to a gluten-free diet. This article is not my bid to convince you that gluten-free is healthier or even better. It is simply my attempt to spread awareness and help those of you who are not dealing with food intolerances to better understand what it is like for those of us who are.

I

“The gluten-free diet is a fad unless you are on it for medically necessary reasons”

This was said to me by a gal who was complaining about the gluten-free diet being forced on her in various thyroid forums. Whilst I have indeed seen this happen and have even experienced it myself before I was gluten-free, I have to say that this is not something that I do – I am happy to educate people about what going gluten-free means and also, if they have symptoms that sound like food intolerances, I will tell them so (as I know from my own experience how horrible it can be to suffer this way), but it’s up to each and every one of us to make our own nutritional decisions. And forcing something on someone is never “digested” well anyway – pardon the pun!

What bugs me most about this comment is not only is it downright rude; it’s also hurtful to those of us who are on this diet – whatever our reasons. In my personal opinion, nobody has the right to judge another person’s motives for following a particular diet. For some the gluten-free diet is a lifestyle choice, but if that is what they choose to do, surely it’s their prerogative. What’s more, calling it a “fad” even if you are only applying this to certain people, is doing a disservice to all of us who are on this diet because most people don’t care what your motives are for following a special diet and will happily listen to such misinformed statements. As it is, many gluten-free gals and guys really have to struggle to be taken seriously and, moreover, not to get constantly “glutened” because food companies so often fail to do their due diligence.

My philosophy is: live and let live! People like this lady are expecting those who are gluten-free to respect her choice not to go down that route. In turn, she needs to realise that it’s a two-way street and she should start showing more respect to those of us who are gluten-free for whatever the reason.

II

“Well, at least you can have alcohol!”

This was said jokingly to me shortly after my diagnosis with multiple food intolerances. Unsurprisingly, I did not find it as amusing as the person who said it meant it to be. As I am trying to heal my gut and basically maintain my health, I keep alcohol to a minimum, but as it is I can’t even have all alcohol because of my damn dairy intolerance! Looking back though, I have to smile at that comment.

III

The trouble with definitions … You say you’re gluten-free and here in Germany some people start talking about Glutamat, which is actually German for monosodium glutamate (aka MSG). Heide, my sister-in-law, has had people tell her she can’t have rice because some rice packets list rice as “glutinous rice”. On other occasions, she’s had waitresses tell her: “It’s okay, honey, we’ve got white bread!” That is why whatever language I am talking in I try to be very clear and very specific about what I can and can’t have. My years of cooking experience stand me in good stead here because I am often able to anticipate whether certain dishes may contain allergens that will cause my body to rebel. Other bloopers have included people asking me whether I can have coconut milk (when I mention I am “dairy-free”). And one that is rather specific to the German language: when I told the waiter at our favourite Turkish restaurant that I couldn’t have egg, he got confused and told me that I couldn’t have meat because it contains Eiweiß (the German word for both protein and egg white!). Well, I certainly have to give him credit for thinking it through, even if he ended up overthinking it!

IV

Recently, at a German Christmas market, I was hungry and there wasn’t much I could have other than the ubiquitous fried mushrooms. However, these are usually served with some sort of dairy-based sauce and a slice of bread, so I told the vendor: “Mushrooms without sauce and bread, please”. Of course, he, thinking he was being a clever dick, retorted: “Are you sure you even want the mushrooms?”

V

This brings me to my next point – one of my pet hates when I mention I am gluten-free is the pity-filled exclamation: “Oh you poor thing, what have you got left to eat!” Well, plenty actually. Being gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free just means that we have to make more conscious choices, which isn’t actually a bad thing as we learn much more about what goes into our food and a lot of the stuff is crap anyway, so you end up avoiding it and having a healthier diet overall, particularly as the best food for someone with intolerances and allergies tends to be food that is cooked from scratch – I find this is something in which certain cuisines tend to excel and have written more about this in my previous article on being gluten-free in Germany. We do find ourselves cooking a lot more at home, which can be time-consuming, but if done right needn’t be as daunting as one might think (e.g. make soup in batches and it’ll be a meal for a good few days)

VI

Before I went on the gluten-free diet, I was very reluctant to go gluten-free as I mistakenly tended to think of it as cutting out an entire food group. I also wondered whether it would detrimentally affect my vitamin and mineral levels, but I can’t say this has been the case. If anything, they have improved since my absorption has improved as a result of eliminating allergens. In fact, a common symptom of celiac disease is the inability to absorb nutrients, so that some sufferers have extremely low iron levels, as well as low Vitamin D (then again, as we have talked in the past, low Vitamin D tends to prevail in a whole host of health conditions).

Recently, I did hear one worried mother talking about her daughter and how going on a gluten-free and dairy-diet has made her hair fall out and her nails brittle. Without knowing exactly what is going on with her daughter, it’s hard to know exactly what is the cause here. One thing I do know is that some people make the mistake of switching to an allergen-free diet, but still eating overly processed foods and not enough nutrient-rich ones. As I supplement and also eat a large amount of fruit and vegetables, I don’t seem to have any major nutritional deficiencies. In my experience and those of my friends who are gluten-free, this is not a common result of going gluten-free and dairy-free. But whatever the cause of these distressing symptoms, I wish my friend and her daughter well and I hope that they get to the bottom of this very soon.

VII

As you may have already realised from some of the points above, lack of empathy is often something those of us with food intolerances have to deal with. On a trip to France, shortly after my diagnosis, we visited a store for special dietary requirements. The woman who worked there severely pissed me off when she expected me to buy up her whole shop – the thing was when I asked her if she had tried her products and which ones were good she told me: “I haven’t tried any of my products because I don’t have to”. How the hell is that supposed to make me feel? That is, I believe, the crux of the matter. Whilst there are companies and stores out there who sell gluten-free products, not all of them are capable of putting themselves in our shoes and realising that we don’t just want things that we can eat; we also want things that we like to eat! At times, I have bit into an allergen-free muffin, cookie or slice of bread only to spit it out and throw it away. I may be gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free, but that doesn’t mean that I should have to sacrifice flavour and deliciousness. Thankfully, there are those food companies out there who do care and do bother to make things that we want to eat. They don’t exhibit this “take it or leave it!” mentality and they want us to be happy with what we buy – particularly as gluten-free products are sadly still often more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts. Before anyone rails on me for mentioning cookies and muffins, even I like to have my treats every now and again, but there too you can make conscious choices by looking at the type of sugar a brand uses (e.g. agave syrup and stevia are often healthier alternatives) or selecting brands with purer, clear-cut, no bullshit ingredients.

VIII

Talking of companies who give a shit versus those who don’t: I find it really infuriating that some restaurant chains go to the effort of listing the allergens in their food, but can’t go to an equal amount of effort to at least offer a few allergen-free options. As someone with multiple intolerances, I don’t expect to be able to eat everything on the menu, but I can tell you it does piss me off when gluten is in things as simple as salad dressings! Hard Rock Café comes to mind. On our wedding trip to Copenhagen, where we got married in their beautiful registry office, we were hungry and didn’t have that many options around, so plumped for the Hard Rock Café, thinking that as an American chain they were likely to have a greater understanding of gluten-free, etc. Whilst they did have an understanding of gluten-free, practically all of their meals contained gluten and what’s more I am pretty damn sure that they were only so eager to list the allergens in their food so that they can waive liability if someone gets sick. In the end, I did find something to eat, but it was quite an ordeal. And this is an experience that has been repeated in other restaurant chains we have been to as well – for health reasons, chain restaurants are not our eatery of choice, but when you are on the road or at an airport, you don’t always have that much choice and sometimes it is either that or starve.

IX

This last comment was made by a friend of ours. He is a very nice guy, but not that knowledgeable about food intolerances since he has not had to deal with them personally. A few nights back, Corey and I commented that more restaurants should do their due diligence, know what goes into their food and take responsibility for catering to their customers. As a service provider (translator and writer), I know only too well how vital it is to know my target group’s desires, needs and concerns. But our friend countered that it is the customer’s responsibility to tell the restaurant what they can and can’t eat and that it’s up to the customer to decide where they want to eat. Well, if only it were that simple! I am all for educating restaurants, and I do so frequently for the sake of other people who come in after me, but the number of times we have been to a restaurant and they did not know or care about the ingredients in their food or even have anything on their menu I could actually eat have been too many to mention.

What I think is that it is the responsibility of restaurants to know about food intolerances, particularly because they are becoming more prevalent. I told my friend as much and he countered with: “Well, it’s probably because gluten intolerance isn’t that prevalent in Germany”. Well, for one thing gluten intolerance is actually more common among those of Northern European descent (including Germans) and for another gluten intolerance is well and truly on the rise – even Reuters news agency seems to think so:

“‘Gluten intolerance was, until recently, considered rare’, said Dr. Petersen. ‘Today, with 1 to 4% of the population being affected by celiac disease and upwards of 10 to 20% affected by gluten sensitivity, it has become extremely common’”.

Another point I made to my friend is that part of the problem is that many people have symptoms the etiology of which they fail to associate with food intolerances because frankly there is not enough public awareness about food intolerances. The only reason I suspected gluten intolerance before my diagnosis is because I have thyroid disease and so I’m pretty well informed when it comes to diet. I also know various friends and family members with gluten intolerance or celiac disease and have heard about the symptoms and problems it can cause. But raising awareness alone is sadly not enough. Another big problem is that many people will test negative on the gluten intolerance/celiac tests, but still feel sooo much better when they go off gluten. How do I know this? Because I have heard countless stories from friends of how this has been the case for them. One of these is C. After hearing about my story, she was inspired to give gluten-free a try and it had astonishing results! As someone who was originally diagnosed with PCOS because of her problems with acne and irregular periods, she had then been told she didn’t have it after all, but her symptoms continued. Well, the amazing thing is that once she tried the gluten-free diet her acne subsided and her periods resumed. C truly is a beautiful girl inside and out and I know she won’t mind me telling you her inspiring story. Recently, she posted the following on my Facebook wall:
“I got an awesome compliment today from the big boss. He said I looked really good compared to a couple of months ago. He only comes to the worksite once a month for about a week! It felt great! I’m like I owe it all to being gluten free!”

Ultimately, I wrote this article to show you what those of us with food intolerances go through on a daily basis and why it is so very vital to raise awareness about what being gluten-free or dairy-free or any other allergen-free really means. Don’t be afraid to speak out if there is a misunderstanding or educate someone if they don’t quite get it. You’ll be doing the rest of us a favour, and as awareness increases, so too do the options and understanding for those of us who follow this lifestyle – whether by choice or for medical reasons. Whether you agree or disagree with gluten-free or a gluten-containing diet, the message to take home is: live and let live!

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