Do Food Allergies Make You Eat Healthier?
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Over the last several years I would often tell Riley how grateful I was for his food allergies because it made the whole family eat better. We hardly ate out because it was often more effort and more stress than just staying home and making our own food. We made most things from scratch and the things we bought had a tendency to be healthier items because they weren’t full of cream, butter, or mayonnaise or any other fattening dairy or egg products. We used olive oil instead of butter, we used vinegar dressings instead of creamy dressings, tomato based soups and sauces instead of heavy cream or butter based soups and sauces. We often ate whole wheat bread because that type of bread is usually made with yeast instead of eggs. There were so many healthy choices we made because we had to make those choices. The alternative was sickness or even death, so the choice was obvious and easy.
I recently began reading a book called “How Not to Diet” by Michael Greger MD. I picked it up at Costco while browsing the book section because I had put on about 10 pounds over the last 6 months. The title grabbed me because I really wanted to lose the 10 pounds but I really did not want to go on a diet. It is a beast of a book (600 pages), not for the faint of heart when it comes to reading, but I can save you a few hours and tell you the gist of it in a few words. A whole food, plant-based diet is the healthiest, sustainable diet for our bodies. While I am not quite ready to commit to a completely Vegan-type lifestyle, reading it made me reflect on a few things.
The first thing I realized was how much more processed food and sweets I had recently added to my diet. I noticed that my weight started climbing slowly but steadily starting in August which is exactly when Riley finished Oral Immunotherapy (OIT) for milk and eggs. We began eating all of the food we could never eat before; donuts, candy bars, store bought bakery items like cookies and cakes, and then of course there are a million flavors of ice cream and shakes to try. We went to new restaurants and bought concessions at sporting events. At Christmas, I don’t even know how many different kinds of cookies I baked. Is it really surprising that I put on 10 pounds? Well, considering that I might have been trying to overcompensate for the last 13 years, maybe it is surprising that I didn’t put on more!!! I realized that food allergies had kept us from eating most processed and prepared food. Food allergies forced us to be aware of everything we ate. It forced us to spend more time thinking about food and preparing food, and it forced us to buy more natural and whole foods. Something everyone really ought to do anyway!
The other thing I realized is that having food allergies is particularly difficult because we want to eat what everyone else is eating. We don’t choose our own diet. It is feeling held back instead of feeling in control. It’s like a kid who resents their parents for imposing restrictions, instead of letting them choose for themselves. I wonder if I had taught all of my kids how unhealthy donuts are and what they do to our bodies, if they all would have chosen not to eat a donut, even without food allergies? Or maybe this is wishful thinking. Maybe kids will always choose sugar and processed food over health? I don’t know… I think they are smarter than we give them credit.
What I do know, is that I had more power to influence and educate my kids than I realized. We need to support our food allergy children and friends socially and emotionally, in whatever way is most helpful to them. I would always hate when people would say to my son, “Oh, that really stinks!”, “You’re really missing out!”, or “I’m so sorry you can’t have that” – all messages implying that he was missing out or that his food or his lifestyle was inferior. I wish I had spent more time educating him about why our diet and lifestyle was equal or even superior because we put more thought into keeping our bodies safe and healthy than any average person. I probably could have spent more effort focusing on all of the wonderful things whole foods and plant based foods do for our health instead of focusing on all of the social exclusion and lack of options for unhealthy indulgences. This is something I am more committed to do now, but I wish I would have started even earlier.
I still thank my son for his food allergies even after OIT because I am grateful that we were forced to be more aware and to create better eating habits. I hope even now that we have graduated from milk and egg OIT, that we will still be aware of what we eat and make choices because we care about our long term health instead of just our immediate safety. I want to strive to eat whole foods, fruits and vegetables the majority of the time and save the indulgences for special occasions. Food allergies forced us into a healthier lifestyle without us even realizing it, and I hope to keep practicing many of those good habits indefinitely.