For severe food intolerance and allergy sufferers, running the gauntlet of eating in or out can be daunting – and sometimes, it can even be life-threatening. Ashlee Starratt offers some helpful tips to help you take back your power when it comes to managing eating and allergens.
It was mid-morning on Wednesday here at the Y Magazine offices when my throat began to close off. It started out slowly, insidiously. One moment I was fine…the next, my tummy felt unwell; then, I broke out in hives around my jawline and my face and chest became red, my lips began to tingle, and I felt like I couldn’t swallow.
A sense of unreality seemed to seep in, and I felt panic starting to add to the tightness in my throat and chest. Thankfully some fast-acting colleagues saw what was happening and immediately assisted in rushing me to hospital where my journey towards discovering I had food allergies began.
After specialist consultations, countless rounds of bloodwork, and an endoscopy procedure, my immunoassay tests finally came back from a lab in Dubai to change my world irrevocably. I didn’t just have a severe immune-response to one or two common food allergens – I had them to practically all of the major ones.
Dairy, whey protein, wheat, and eggs; plus, cashews, garlic, curry leaves, and rapeseed oil, ginger, bananas, pineapples, pomegranates, cornstarch, yogurt, and gluten. Plus, significantly increased intolerance levels to a host of other foods too lengthy to list here, out of the 200 they tested for.
It was a gut-punch I wasn’t expecting. Having already been coping with major lifestyle changes from a recent Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, to receive this news on top of it felt like the last nail in this foodie’s coffin. I fought back tears in the doctor’s office, breaking down only once I reached the car – clutching my referral to the dietitian. ‘What was left??’, I thought to myself. ‘What can I eat that won’t actually kill me?’ ‘What kind of quality of life will I have?’ “How can I eat out?’ ‘How can I travel without fear and ensure the food I consume is safe for me?’
Having always taken joy in recipe-hunting, meal-prepping and menu planning, and – being a journalist – a decided to do what I do best: my homework. I wasn’t going to let a diagnosis that had changed my life, consume it.
I carry an EpiPen now. And while I don’t accept media invitations to foodie events as readily anymore – or be so quick to dine out spontaneously (a trip to a restaurant requires planning now!), I’m here to say that life still tastes pretty good.
Here are some important guidelines that helped me cope and which I now live by:
1. Reading ingredient labels. A no-brainer, perhaps, but when you have a severe allergy or food intolerance its essential. Allergens can be hiding in the most innocuous of products – from ice cream that contains soya lecithin, to your favourite brand of nacho Doritos that contains whey powder. Learn the lingo, stay empowered.
2. Consider going plant-based. While I still eat oily fish and lean chicken once or twice a week, I’ve found that following an otherwise mostly plant-based or vegan diet has helped immensely in managing my risk factors. (Bearing in mind those fruits and veggies I’m intolerant to.) There are many great vegan blogs out there to help get you started and ease you into a gluten-free and/or dairy-free life. And learning how to make chapatis from steamed cauliflower and psyllium flour, or a creamy tahini pasta salad dressing that will have even the staunchest of dairy-lovers fooled is pretty empowering. You’ll want to bookmark ones like www.veganricha.com and www.picklesnhoney.com.
3. There’s a substitute for that. Thankfully human ingenuity, with a little push from Mother Nature has made sure that swap-outs exist to fit a wide variety of allergy profiles. For those with wheat allergies, understanding that ‘gluten-free’ doesn’t always mean ‘wheat-free’ is vital. I rotate in rice-flour or quinoa-based pasta instead. For eggs substitutes in baking and cooking, a few teaspoons of water with a few tablespoons of powdered flaxseed and it’s ‘job done’. Plus, rice, oat, flaxseed, almond, arrowroot, and tapioca flour will become your best friends when living with a wheat allergy – and all can be found readily in Oman supermarkets. While peppercorns, onions, celery, asafetida, and other aromatics have helped me make a clean yet still savoury break from garlic.
4. Expect to invest. After all – it’s your health. A lot of these alternative allergy-friendly products don’t come cheap. So, when you hit the grocery stores to stock up your pantry expect the bill to be steep initially. But then thankfully, once stocked up they should last you a good while – especially a lot of the wheat-flour alternatives. Our first ‘eating with allergies’ grocery bill set us back at Lulu around RO74.
5. Keep an open mind. Approach your new diet and lifestyle with rose-tinted glasses as knowledge is power on the first step towards health. Personally, we’ve really enjoyed our vegan and plant-based meals – and yes you can still have treats! Potatoes and fries are not off-limits for me (in moderation of course!), and we’ve made some amazing vegan gluten-free brownies, and tahini-maple oat cookies packed with cranberries, almonds, and dark chocolate. Your attitude determines the altitude as they say…
Finally, always have an emergency plan in place in case the unexpected happens and you accidentally come in contact with one of your food -allergy triggers without realizing it. If you carry one, make sure you keep your EpiPen on you at all times and inform friends, family, and colleagues where it can be located in the event of an emergency and, most vitally – how to administer it.
Where to find alternative products in Oman
• Carrefour – The branch in City Centre Muscat continues to have the widest selection of vegan, organic, and alternative products that we’ve found to date and runs the gamut from grains/pastas, gluten-free and sugar-free snacks, an alternative range of flours, plant and nut milks, and organic/fair trade condiments, teas, coffees, oils etc.
• Lulu Hypermarket – Coming in a close second, Lulu’s organic/alternative section is ever-growing – especially at their Oman Avenues and new Mall of Muscat locations. Here we’ve managed to find nutritional yeast (a great vegan ‘cheesy’ substitute), amaranth – an ancient grain that easily swaps out for popcorn, a good selection of organic nut butters, and even rice suitable for diabetics.
• Spinney’s & Al Meera: Both chains have smaller but comprehensive organic/alternative product sections that we hope to see grow. At Al Meera we’ve been able to find coconut aminos (a great soy sauce substitute), organic miso pastes, gluten-free pasta, and a large array of sugar substitutes. While Spinney’s is great on the ‘junk-food’-vegan snack front with a comprehensive selection of gluten-free crackers and cookies, pancake, brownie and muffin mixes, organic brands of potato chips, plus powdered-flax egg substitutes, and organic lentils and legumes, and dairy products such as yogurts made from goat and sheep’s milk.
Comfort food in a bowl, this veggie-packed flavour-punch is creamy and satisfying, getting its zing from the heat of fresh sambal oelek and harissa spice. If you have intolerances to either garlic or ginger, the recipe remains flavourful even without them. And if you have a peanut allergy, leave them out, and the dish still becomes a hearty veg stew.