Earlier this year, my 5-year-old son, Alex, joined the growing ranks of Americans who have tested positive for food allergies. Alex had been sick to his stomach, off and on, for weeks. Tests revealed allergic responses to a large number of foods and an abnormally high white blood cell count. An allergist advised us to temporarily eliminate wheat, dairy, chicken, fish, pork, beef and eggs from Alex’s diet. My husband and I were stunned.
I ran through his favorite foods in my head, mentally ticking off those that were suddenly forbidden. Milk? Gone. Regular pasta? Nope. Bread, brownies, crackers, pizza? History. Cheese sticks, squeezable yogurts, hamburgers? Sorry.
For a while, it was tough going. Try explaining to a kid why you’re suddenly serving his sandwiches on crackly brown-rice tortillas with egg-free mayo, and you’ll know what I mean.
But we adjusted. Turns out, oat flour makes terrific cookies and pancakes. Quinoa spaghetti holds up well to marinara. Fortified rice milk and soymilk work beautifully in many recipes. And whoever invented dairy-free chocolate chips earned a place of honor in our home.
Perhaps what surprised me most during the early weeks of Alex’s ordeal was how many people told me they, too, had to avoid certain foods, or knew of someone else with a food restriction. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, about 12 million Americans have food allergies. A true food allergy causes the body’s immune system to attack the proteins in a particular food, releasing chemicals (histamines) that cause symptoms like hives, gastrointestinal or respiratory distress. Symptoms, whether mild or severe, occur quickly: within a few minutes to two hours of eating. In the most severe cases, they progress to anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal condition in which the allergic reaction overtakes the entire body.