I’d really like to share a part of my own personal food journey with my readers. This is something that has been tossing around my mind a lot lately, and I really feel like it is something that is greatly misunderstood by people who do not suffer with food allergies.
Picky eating and food allergies go hand in hand. Food allergies and intolerances literally mess with our body chemistry and give us all sorts of crazy signals.
To start with, foods that we cannot tolerate can actually invade our brains and make us crave the very foods that make us sick. It seems self-destructive to just crave cheese, knowing that it will make us sick. But we are not making a conscious choice to want the food that will make us sick! It is a battle with our body to NOT want these foods. This is one of the things that can leave us really needing support from those around us. Watching someone else eating what you are craving but shouldn’t have is just as difficult as trying to quit smoking while sitting next to all of your friends smoking at the bar.
For another, having food allergies can make our stomachs more sensitive, and make it more difficult to digest foods – especially if we are eating foods that we aren’t tolerating! And even after we find out about our intolerances, depending on how much trauma our bodies have been through, it can still be a struggle to eat different foods throughout our lives.
And last, babies and children who have food intolerances are often naturally more hesitant with new foods – even without social pressures. Some in the scientific community feel that this may be an instinctive protective measure. It has been found several times that many children with food issues begin eating later in infancy, and are picky eaters as children.
As I’ve said before, I have a dairy allergy that I was diagnosed with at 29 years old. I have had it my entire life. And yes, I mean allergy, not lactose intolerance. Yet, I managed to live 29 years without knowing that I had any type of food issue. In fact, if you had asked me before I found out about the dairy allergy, I would have told you that I was one of those lucky people who didn’t have any trouble with food – dairy specifically – except that I was very particular about what I would eat. And I always have been. But after finding out about the allergy and eliminating dairy from my diet, I feel like a completely different person. It turns out, you just feel what is normal for you. You don’t actually know what normal feels like for anyone else. And normal for me felt pretty hellish – though I had no idea at the time.
I could talk about lots of effects that eating dairy my first 29 years of life had on me, but the part I really want to address here today is the picky eating – because I think this is an aspect of food allergies that is often overlooked and misunderstood. So I’d like to give the perspective of an adult who has dealt with this for over 33 years now.
I almost never drink water. It is this giant point of contention in my life, and one that I get so tired of justifying to others. But I just cannot do it. And I’ve never been able to. I am married to Mr. YouNeedToDrinkMoreWater. The week before we were married, my mom traveled out and stayed with us to help us prepare for our wedding. After just a day or two of listening to Micah try to persuade me to drink more water, she said to him, “I stopped trying to get her to drink it when she was 1. I’ve never seen another baby who wouldn’t drink water.” And that is the summary of my relationship with water, right there, folks. My entire childhood, I was told that I just didn’t like water – that I’d rather drink Kool-Aid. I was told that I was just too stuck up to drink water. I was told that I was just stubborn. I was told several things about why I wouldn’t drink water. And when I would reply, in the only capacity that I could as a child, that drinking water made my belly hurt, I was ridiculed and told how it “really” was. Even as an adult, I was ridiculed when I said that drinking water upset my stomach. I was told that I just wanted an excuse to drink Coke all the time. I was still ridiculed, laughed at, told how absurd that was and that water couldn’t upset anyone’s stomach. All well and good, except that it upset MY stomach.
And then, at 29, I was diagnosed with a dairy allergy, and I eliminated all dairy from my diet. And the most amazing thing happened. I can actually tolerate a small amount of water in a day! But just a small amount.
And I learned a little something about my body that has FINALLY helped me to articulate to people my dilemma with water. When I eat dairy, my digestion slows to a crawl. If I eat a bite of cheese, you can trace it through my intestinal tract from the outside of my body for up to 2 weeks. Sometimes, you can even see it from the outside of my body. This is because my entire digestive system swells around that bite of cheese (or other dairy). So I have learned that when I have a stomach full of dairy, my stomach swells up and undigested food just sits there – sometimes for days. I lose all appetite. Sometimes it takes me two meals to finish an entire sandwich after an exposure. There is just not much room for food in such an inflamed stomach. And when I was on a steady stream of dairy, my intestines were also always swollen, full of undigested food and acid. It was quite uncomfortable. And water, well… pouring water into the vat of acid and undigested food in my stomach was an absolutely miserable experience. It raised the level of acid in my stomach and made it burn. The water against my swollen tissues caused burning, nausea, and sometimes actual pain. And it still does, if I have had a dose of dairy! In fact, even when I have not recently had a dairy exposure, my stomach is still so hypersensitive that it is still leary of water.
Yet, people feel the need to lecture me all the time about my water consumption. I really need to drink a gallon a day. I really need to try. Am I sure it isn’t just a sugar addiction? Have I ever tried drinking water with lemon? What about with honey? Is it just an excuse? Have I tried spring water? What about filtered water? And on, and on…
Just a note – I am 33 years old. I know my body. I know what it needs. I have learned more about nutrition in the last 4.5 years than most people will learn in their lifetimes. Yes, I know about water with lemon. Yes, I know it is important to stay hydrated. No, I still cannot tolerate water.
And then I look at my 4.5 year old son. I watch him pick at his food. He loves crunchy veggies. He loves fruit. He likes meat, as long as there isn’t anything that even looks like fat on it. He likes plain rice, potatoes, pasta, oatmeal, and sometimes quinoa. He drinks almond milk hand over fist at meals. He loves salmon patties. But he doesn’t like most cooked vegetables. He doesn’t trust any food that is mixed up. He can’t stand to have his applesauce touch anything else on his plate. He eats what the rest of us are eating for dinner 2-3 nights per week, depending on what is on the menu. And he rarely drinks water.
I get the conventional wisdom from all sides that says I am not a short order cook. He needs to learn to eat what everyone else is eating. He will eat when he is hungry enough. He needs to learn to be a more adventurous eater. I need to just make him eat what the rest of us are eating.
But then there is my own inner voice that is so tired of people giving me a hard time about what I will or won’t eat. There is my own experience of being a child and being forced to make a choice between eating something that upset my stomach or going hungry. There is my own experience as an adult, who still didn’t know what the problem was, and being ridiculed for not eating what everyone around me thought was delicious, amazing food. And there is a large part of me that is still angry at the people who try to convince me that I just don’t know my own body or what is good for me.
Having food allergies is hard! I think that having food intolerances is almost harder because there isn’t reliable testing for it, and people take cramps, diarrhea, and other general symptoms much less seriously than, oh, say, a peanut allergy that can kill you. But having to deal with the picky eating that can result from having a food allergy or intolerance is almost the worst! Having the world at large feel free to judge you by what you are and aren’t capable of choking down is one of the more degrading aspects of food issues.
And this is what I try to bear in mind when I look at my little man, searching the dinner table for something that looks appetizing. Is it as fun to feed him as it is to feed his sister and brother who are always eager to try new foods? Honestly, no. But is it just as valid for his distressed little stomach to want to take it slow and stick to foods he knows won’t bother him? Absolutely. So, he is allowed to make himself something else or to ask for a (premade and frozen) burger patty or salmon patty while I am cooking something that the rest of us will enjoy. Because his food issues are something that he is already struggling to overcome on his own – and will for the rest of his life. I don’t need to be one of the people who ridicules him for not eating steamed veggies.