MYSTERIOUS RASH: COULD IT BE A FOOD ALLERGY? (PART 3)
If you've been suffering from eczema, and you've finally managed to identify the cause as food allergies, you have fought the hardest part of the battle to getting your health back. Playing detective, getting allergy tested and doing an elimination diet (as described in Parts 1 and 2 of this post) is a trying process that might test your patience, but once you've managed to pinpoint which foods you're allergic to then you are well on your way to living eczema free. As you know, eczema is more than a nuisance- when severe it can affect your quality of life causing chronic pain, itchiness, burning and inflammation of the skin, and it can take a toll on your social and emotional well being too. Now that you've identified your allergens, let's talk about how to avoid them so that your skin can heal and stay clear, radiant and healthy.
1) DINING OUT
Depending on what food or foods you're allergic to, it will be either easy or extremely challenging to spot those foods when eating out. For example, if you're allergic to shellfish, you most often will be able to visibly see the shellfish in any prepared dish at a restaurant, and you'll easily be able to communicate your allergy to a server. Unfortunately, there are a number of foods that people are commonly allergic to that can be virtually invisible to the eye in many popular dishes. Dairy, eggs, peanut and soy are often difficult to identify simply by looking at the cooked meal. In Part 2 of this post I listed the many alternative ingredient names for soy as an example. Soy and its derivatives are used in flavorings, additives, preservatives, binders, vegetable oil and cooking sprays. Since my allergy is to soy, I've learned over the years that the only 100% sure way to avoid accidentally ingesting my allergen while eating out is to simply not eat while out at all. That may sound extreme, but I've had numerous miscommunications and misunderstanding with well-meaning servers, restaurant chefs and owners that have led to accidental and severe allergic reactions.
"Our pizza dough is not made with soy...
Oh but we did drizzle just a tiny bit of vegetable oil on the crust today"
"We use olive oil in the salad dressing...
On closer inspection the label on the oil says "75% olive oil, 25% vegetable oil"
"There is no soy used in our kitchen...
We did use chicken stock that contains flavoring derived from soy it seems"
I have countless examples from the past 6 years of living with a legume allergy.
Perhaps the biggest step in keeping my skin healthy has been when I realized that my allergies are not the responsibility of any restaurant owner, chef or server, and that only I can be held accountable for my own safety. I urge you to take ownership of your allergies sooner rather than later to gain confidence and freedom when it comes to your diet choices.
Even if you have an allergy to a food that likes to hide out and masquerade in disguise, there may still be occasions when you simply feel you have to eat out for a social reason- a birthday, holiday, work meeting etc. The best option in this case is to avoid ordering any food that is cooked on a grill, in a pan, or in an oven. This helps to avoid cross contamination from other foods and cooking oils that have come into contact with those surfaces. One option to consider is to order steamed vegetables- but if you have an allergy to oils, you'll have to trust that no oil is added and that the food is simply steamed with water. The very best option is to eat only raw whole food- a salad. This seems easy enough, but most all salad dressings contain hidden ingredients (milk, egg and soy derivatives). It's safest to ask for a dry salad and a lemon wedge and squeeze it yourself! Animal products and any cooked salad ingredients pose a threat since you cannot visibly see how they were prepared. Even whole nuts and dried fruit on a salad can contain soy or peanuts. If you look at labels for dried fruit or even unsalted raw nuts of any kind, you can easily spot brands that say "May contain soy" or "May contain peanuts" or other common allergens because of cross contamination and fragments from processing of other products in the same facility. I recently purchased some pitted dates from a brand I'd never used before, and I suffered a flare up of eczema because I neglected to see the label said "May contain soy".
At Disneyland last summer I consulted with the server about my allergies and she promptly and kindly sent the chef directly to our table. The chef confessed that there was nothing in the kitchen that would be safe with the exception of steamed broccoli and hard boiled egg- he was extremely knowledgeable about allergies and he noted before I could bring it up that even hard boiled eggs are often preserved with soy. In this 4 star resort restaurant, the chef admitted that their hard boiled eggs are prepared and shipped to their restaurant rather than boiled in house, and he had to run in the kitchen to check a label to make sure the eggs weren't preserved with soy.
At numerous restaurants I've paid good money to eat a less than appetizing and definitely not filling plate of non organic raw spinach and grated carrots with a squeeze of fresh lemon just in order to participate socially and "eat out" in the past. The exception to the restaurant dilemna is to eat in a "raw food" restaurant in which case all or most of the dishes are prepared with truly raw and whole food ingredients. Such places are a safe haven for allergy sufferers and a truly miraculous reprieve from the dangers posed at standard eateries and the exhaustion of preparing food at home. Unfortunately there are few raw food restaurants in existence due to the niche market and high cost that comes with that high quality of ingredients. I'll share about my favorite raw food restaurants in a future post in case you have the luck of traveling and visiting one, or perhaps finding one near you. Besides the rare occasion to eat in a raw food restaurant, I'm happiest eating food I can safely prepare at home to create a satisfying and customized meal that caters to my cravings.
2) SAFE EATING AT HOME
While the social side of eating out is something I miss, I've found it's not worth the anxiety and worry about a potential reaction, and the often long term (months on end) process of recovery. My home kitchen has become my safe haven, my diner, my late night cafe, my taco stand, my smoothie truck, my sushi bar, my everything. I'm the maker of the menu, the grocery shopper, the cook and the loyal patron. During periods when I'm able to shop for and then prepare all of the food I eat at home, I'm easily 100% eczema free with radiant skin. That is, except for that one time the very first year after I discovered my allergy to soy and I was still in the learning process...
I bought a sushi mat, metal reusable chopticks, and read about making homemade sushi with an extra healthy protein punch by using quinoa instead of rice. I purchased nori paper for the first time and made an amazing and giant roll with fresh avocado and mango chunks- all organic. Traditional sushi rice is prepared with vinegar and sugar. I like to avoid processed sugar, so I figured I needed a substitute for that, as well as something flavorful to dip the sushi in since I wouldn't be using soy sauce. At the natural food store I spotted a salad dressing I thought would be perfect:
This was 7 years ago but I saved the photo of the sushi I made taken with my old phone because I was just so proud of my first attempt at making sushi:
I used the Bragg's brand dressing to help hold everything together by stirring it into the cooked quinoa, then I used it as a dipping sauce for each bite because it truly was delicious and a surprisingly excellent soy sauce replacement. Or so I thought...
Fast forward 3 hours- my belly was still full and my husband came home- he took one look at me when he came through the door and said "What's wrong with your face!?" "What do you mean?" I asked panicked- because while the eczema was starting to appear like red lipstick marks across my eyelids, cheeks and around my mouth, I hadn't yet looked in a mirror or felt the itch, pain and swelling that would come a few more hours later. It turned out, upon closer inspection of the salad dressing label, that there was an ingredient called "Bragg's liquid aminos". I realized I didn't really know what that was... so I looked it up:
I had just unknowingly fed myself homemade sushi with soy sauce stirred into every bite, then dipped each soy laden bite into more soy sauce. This caused the most severe eczema I've ever experienced, and it took a full 6 months before my skin was fully healed. It was a nightmare, but it was an important lesson: this incident led me to a new level of awareness that requires avoiding nearly all bottled, packaged and processed foods altogether, and pushed me into eating an even healthier and safer truly whole food diet. All of my recipes on the blog use strictly whole food ingredients for this purpose. I share this here just to explain that food allergies are tricky, decoding ingredient labels sometimes feels like it requires a Phd, we are our own police, guard, boss, (whatever you wanna call yourself) when it comes to taking ownership of our allergies and looking out for ourselves. So long as you don't wind up in the hospital, it helps to have a sense of humor- I can certainly laugh about my tragic sushi 7 years later. Good luck to us all.