Monday, July 28, 2008

It's a War Out There

Most of us grow up thinking of food as a good thing. It’s healthy, tasty, comforting, expected, needed, depended on, craved, enjoyed, shared, loved. We never expect it to turn on us. But then, in the blink of an eye – or the pop of a hive, or the wheeze of a constricted airway – a once-benign food betrays us and we’re left reeling from the shock.

No longer our friendly companion, that food has suddenly become “the enemy.” We begin to see that, like any enemy, that food has infiltrated all corners of our lives. It lurks in every snack, every meal, every social gathering. Its insidious influence invades our schools, our entertainment, our church, our homes. We can no longer trust that our world is protected. This bad food has infiltrators – okay, so most people call them allergens – in every aspect of our lives, and we no longer feel safe. Our innocence disappears faster than a tax refund.

Discovering my son’s peanut and tree nut allergy was just this sort of betrayal. As for myself, my three favorite vices are potato chips, margaritas, and a good cup of coffee. Discovering that I have diabetes put a big dent in the first two, and an irregular heartbeat has just put the kibosh on the third one. Granted, all three were vices I’m probably better living without, but still, they were MY vices, I was kind of fond of them, and as vices go they certainly could have been worse. Why couldn’t I have suddenly developed an allergic reaction to, say, cleaning toilets or a health condition that could only be cured by moving to a tropical paradise? No such luck.

It takes a long time to build up our defenses after they’ve been breached by a double-crossing food. We have to teach ourselves new ways to cook. We must retrain our families to live without foods they’ve trusted all their lives. We put our allergic kids through food training boot-camp, trying to convince them that they have to give up foods they used to love, so that they can once again be safe. We build an arsenal of new recipes and EpiPens.

It often feels like a silent war we’re waging. From the outside, perhaps we look fairly normal and in control of our lives. But within the borders of our hearts, we know the battles we’re waging and the victories we count (and the losses we try not to).

With time, patience, and determination, each of us eventually reduces our all-out war to a peaceful truce – where we secure a safe home and some trusted allies in the form of friends, family, and schools. We still might find ourselves with the occasional border skirmish on our hands, but over all, we come to understand the enemy, find ways to limit its affect on us, and build healthier lives without it.

And while we must always remain on guard against our new food enemy, eventually we make our worlds secure enough that once again we can turn our attention to the more fulfilling parts of our lives, like enjoying a soccer game without fuming over the post-game snacks, or watching a great movie without mindlessly downing a giant tub of popcorn, or enjoying all the fun of a birthday party without pining for a slice of refined-sugar, fat-laden, cardboard-tasting birthday cake.

In short, we get to “make life, not war.”

This week is my blog’s anniversary. I started writing this weekly blog one year ago, and it’s been an eye-opening, fulfilling year. I’ve learned a lot about food allergies, and shared a lot with all of you who read this each week. Thanks!

Here’s to another year in the trenches with you.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Allergy-Safe Camping

Two weekends ago, I was dirty, sunburned, covered in eau de bug spray that only marginally worked, bathed in wood smoke, blinking ash out of my eyes, and engaged in competitive mosquito-slapping.

It was great! I was, of course, camping.

It was our second annual camping trip with a group of close friends – five families, for a total of ten kids and ten grown-ups. The kids range in age from 4 to almost 11, and they’ve all grown up together, so they’re a noisy, close-knit bunch that play at full-tilt from the time they rise until they begin to drop off around the campfire as the moon gleams and the parents laugh at old stories.

We spent two nights by a picturesque lake under towering pines on the north slope of the Uintas. The days were blue-sky gorgeous, and the nights were star-spangled and frosty cold. Camping in Utah is a joy, made better when you can split the cooking duties with other people.

We arrived Friday afternoon and left Sunday mid-day, so that meant we had five meals to deal with. After some complex mathematical calculations during our planning, we discovered that five meals divided by five families equals… let’s see, one meal per family, right? Yep. We’re purty smart.

So each family planned and prepared a single meal for the whole gang of twenty, and it made everyone’s weekend that much easier.

Because we have two allergic kids in the bunch, we make sure all meals and snacks are safe for them. The last thing we want is a life-threatening food reaction when we’re hours from the nearest hospital, so we simply ban all of their allergens from the entire campsite. All food the five families bring is free of milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts, and seafood.

Too restrictive? Not hardly. We ate like royalty!

Friday night was Susan’s fantastic kalua pork, rice, and salad, followed by a cherry chocolate birthday cake that was sinfully good.

Saturday morning was Necia’s fruit and cinnamon rolls on a stick, grilled over the open fire, along with bacon and breakfast cookies. When is breakfast ever that fun?

Lunch was a feast of Lorie’s delectable chicken salad and a smorgasbord of sandwich fixins on a variety of breads and tortillas.

For supper, Kim’s hobo dinners of beef, potatoes, green beans, and carrots all roasted in foil pouches over the campfire were delicious and really hit the spot after a hard day of fishing and Frisbee. And the roasted corn-on-the-cob was a first-of-the-season treat. Garlic bread was the finishing touch.

Sunday’s breakfast was my assignment, so I brought a variety of muffins – blueberry, chocolate chip, banana, and carrot cake – which I’d baked a few days earlier and frozen so they’d survive the trip. I also provided apple slices with Sunbutter for dipping.

All of those meals were completely free of milk, eggs, nuts, and seafood, but anyone who might have joined us would have never guessed. It was all delicious and nutritious, and there was plenty of it!

This group of friends has been close for seven or eight years now, so we’ve had a long time to get used to dealing with allergies and a long time to find delicious recipes. Each time we get together, it becomes a game for us moms to try out new concoctions. It’s fun, and nine times out of ten, it’s successful. (My chocolate chip muffins were a little too dense, but my carrot cake was a hit!)

Having food allergies hasn’t meant giving up on parties and get-togethers. It has meant we’ve come to appreciate this circle of friends (and more) who accept food allergies as a normal part of life, and who are infinitely willing to change their own cooking and eating habits for us. That is TRUE friendship.

We’re already planning next year’s camping trip, and I’m already coming up with some new muffin recipes to try. It’s the least I can do to thank these wonderful friends.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Changing Our Kids’ Eating Habits

Almost every month, a new person finds their way to our Davis County UFAN meetings. Often they or their children are newly diagnosed, and they’re struggling to find a way to ease this transition into thinking about food in a whole new way. We welcomed just such a mom to our group last week, so our discussion revolved around ways to help her five-year-old daughter learn to change her eating habits.

Teaching a child to avoid certain foods is hard. Doing it when that child is old enough to have already developed a taste for those foods is even harder.

Unfortunately, food allergies can develop at any time. (I became allergic to barley and avocado in my 20s.) In some ways, it may be easier to have your child’s allergies appear when they’re very young, before they learn to love fudge, or popcorn shrimp, or ice cream. Although there are safe versions of most foods, the tastes aren’t always the same, and it’s hard to get a six-year-old to understand why he can’t have the ice cream at Baskin Robbins now, when he could last month. But if he’s grown up knowing only the taste of soy ice cream, he doesn’t have that problem.

So when you’re faced with teaching an older child that managing her food allergies means giving up some of her favorite foods, it can be an uphill climb.

Some kids are so tired of being sick or miserable from symptoms like eczema, vomiting, or hives that they’re willing to give up those foods to feel better. But some kids really can’t seem to associate the bad reactions later with the yummy taste now. All they can focus on is the instant gratification – what happens later, even if it’s only ten minutes from now, doesn’t concern them. We have to be concerned for them and take on the role of food cop. And they don’t like it one bit. (Neither do we, frankly.)

Once again, we find that this parenting gig is hard. I know, I know, big surprise.

Of course, we’re not alone. Lots of parents face challenges when it comes to food, regardless of whether allergies are involved. It’s our job to teach our kids healthy eating habits. (And that’s made even more difficult when our own habits aren’t that great!)

We have to teach them why they can’t eat candy for breakfast. Why they can’t eat six popsicles in a single sitting. Why they have to eat at least one serving of veggies with their hot dog. Why they can’t eat the entire bag of Oreos right before dinner.

We try to teach about the food pyramid, or at least the four basic food groups (I never have gotten the hang of that pyramid). We teach portion size. We teach concepts like balanced meals, healthy choices, and why fiber helps them poop.

Then after all that teaching, we still find ourselves arguing over every bite of green veggie, every pilfered lollipop, every suspiciously empty wrapper.

It’s just another of those less-than-fun aspects of parenting we signed on for when we brought home that little bundle of joy. So our issue is teaching why food allergens make that brownie off-limits. The next parent is dealing with an empty Twizzler bag under the bed of their overweight child, or a meltdown over a can of soda with their diabetic kid, or the pizza party for the child in a kosher or vegan family.

We all have food issues, I guess. And what works for one child seldom works for the next, so it’s difficult to offer advice. Tricks and bribes, rewards and consequences, explanations and threats – we probably try ’em all at least once, with varying success. The only constants are vigilance and time. We talk ourselves blue, pull out our hair, and wring our hands to shreds because we have to. It’s our job, and we do it in the hopes that someday our kids will get to the point where they can manage their food issues themselves, competently and confidently (and maybe even better than we manage our own, if we're honest with ourselves!). And believe it or not, most of them really do get there.

So what can we parents do for each other? Offer support, encouragement, ideas, and cheers – the things we never get from those very kids we’re trying to help, but that make us feel a little better when coming from other parents sharing our dilemma.

Together, we’re that much stronger.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Being Allergic to Aluminum Stinks

I’ve spent the last week looking for my deodorant in all my usual stores. It’s not there. I’m afraid it’s gone for good.

I’m frustrated. I’m irritated. And in a few weeks when my last stick runs out, I’ll be smelly, too.

It stinks when you find a product you depend on, and suddenly either the stores stop selling it or the manufacturer stops making it.

I’m allergic to some metals, including aluminum. That makes it impossible for me to use antiperspirants, because they use an aluminum salt to work. I can wear deodorants that don’t include an antiperspirant, but all they seem to do is apply a little chemical-smelling perfume in an effort to out-smell the B.O. I’ve tried a bunch of them – including the infamous crystal – and none of them worked at all. It’s a sticky problem.

Then one sweet, happy day, I found an Adidas deodorant that uses something they call “Cotton-Tech.” Finally, something that works with my body chemistry! I love it. I depend on it. I can’t live without it. And now, I can’t find it. I can’t even locate a phone number to call to see if they still make it. Something’s rotten in the state of deodorants, I tell you.

This morning, I hunted online and found two online stores that appear to carry it. I guess I’ll have to pay a small fortune to have a dozen or so shipped to me, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the product arrives as advertised. If not, I’ll end up with a dozen sticks of something I can’t use. I worry that the shippers will substitute something they think looks similar. Do I smell a conspiracy? And I’ve learned that sometimes these stores are just getting rid of the remaining stock of a discontinued product, so this might be the end of my deodorant story. That’s the pits.

I wish stores had the flexibility to be more responsive to smaller groups of customers. There are a growing number of people who are trying to avoid aluminum now because of the suspected link to Alzheimer’s disease, and I’m sure I’m not the only person allergic to aluminum. I know that’s why Adidas gave this aluminum-free deodorant a chance. But I guess we still aren’t big enough of a group to convince the marketing arm of Adidas that they should continue to support this product.

I realize that retail economies force stores to carry only products that fit the largest number of customers, and large manufacturers will only continue to produce products that sell to a giant target base. If they don’t catch a whiff of success on the first try, they are quick to pull the plug.

Food allergic people are, unfortunately, becoming a larger target audience every day, so slowly but surely we’re sniffing out a few new products and resources every year that cater to us. But those of us with metal allergies are still pretty small in number, so I guess I’ll just have to be patient and bide my time until stores cater to me again.

In the meantime, I plan to support those online retailers and hope I get what I order. And if I don’t, you might want to stand upwind.