“Dana, I ran some tests on you because I had a suspicion, and needed to verify before I brought it up. You have Celiac Disease. It’s an autoimmune disease, that you’ve most likely had your whole life, it’s just started giving you problems now ….” After that, every syllable was muffled under the roaring of questions. I don’t remember much else of what she said, except that I’d feel amazingly better in a few weeks of going on a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free?! I wasn’t even sure what gluten was, let alone how to make sure my diet was free of it! She gave me the information for a dietitian who would help me sort out what I could and couldn’t eat from now on. I left and marched straight into Einstein’s Bagels where I ordered my very last (on purpose) gluten-filled sandwich. While I sat there savoring every bite, waves of dread and fear pulsed through what felt like every cell of my body. What did she mean, no more wheat? What all was gluten in? How would I grocery shop? Why, if I’d had this all my life, was it suddenly a problem? What is the gluten actually doing to my body? What happens if I cheat?
As we age, diagnosing food allergies becomes harder to do. It may be that we overlook a recurring symptom because we just started a new medication. Maybe we have more than one health concern that can cause many of the same symptoms, or maybe we’re reluctant to believe we could have a problem because we never have before. Aging changes things – it changes our gut’s absorption. It changes our skin, our sinuses, and so many more elements that can impact the development of allergies or sensitivities. For example, the average age of those diagnosed with Celiac Disease are between 40 and 60, with about 20% being diagnosed after the age of 60. I was lucky. My doctor was able to identify my symptoms even before I recognized them.
Did you know nearly 11% of adults have a food allergy and about half of those were newly diagnosed in later years? Allergies like fish and shellfish, tree nuts, dairy, and wheat are just some of the most commonly reported adult-onset allergies and sensitivities.
How can you help identify whether you may be experiencing a food allergy? The first thing you can do is discuss it with your doctor. Start keeping a journal of those times when you are experiencing symptoms, and be descriptive of your environment, the times of day, how long it lasts, what you ate, what medications you’re taking, and when. Remember, just because you’ve never noticed a reaction to something before, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not having one.
Once you have identified that you definitely have an allergy or sensitivity, make sure to share that information with your family and friends. They love you, and they want to make sure you stay healthy. Don’t suffer in silence like I did for a few years, not wanting to put anyone out. I can’t tell you how many potlucks I attended without eating. This probably made them feel like I didn’t appreciate their food, when the truth was, I would’ve loved to have eaten that entire chocolate pie!
Meet with a dietician. Let him or her show you the way to shop and eat safely. I left my dietician’s office crying out of gratitude because she told me I actually could have a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup – it didn’t have gluten! For weeks, I’d spent countless hours at the grocery reading labels and not understanding them fully; fearful of every bite I put in my mouth that it may counteract all the effort I’d put forward up to that point; severely depressed because my future seemed overwhelmingly complicated and bleak – new recipes with strange ingredients, that didn’t seem to measure cup for cup or tsp. to tsp. and that tasted entirely foreign to me. I kept at it, though, and learned some tricks, and identified some favorite products that work well.
Check out or buy a book on your specific needs. I carried around a book for months that helped me navigate the path I suddenly found myself on. It’s been 12 years, and I still refer to it sometimes.
Join a Facebook group, or find an organization online you can consult to collect information. I get some of my best ideas from them.
Absolutely do not give up eating out if that brings you joy! I remember eating only a bowl full of mashed potatoes at Chili’s because I had no idea how to ask the server for a gluten-free menu. Don’t be shy! If the website doesn’t tell you, call ahead to see what menu options they have available for you. Let your server know about your needs, and ask what foods you can eat. More often than not, they have a menu with allergens or nutritional information. Sometimes the chef will even come out to discuss your options with you. If you’re in food service, and have the freedom to make changes to your menu, if they’re easy changes to make, make them! No kidding – I get so goofy-giddy when I get to order a sandwich with actual gluten-free bread! Don’t even get me started about dessert! Did I encounter servers who didn’t take my request seriously? Yes. But that’s where I learned to be proactive. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened in several years! Advocate for yourself. Yes, I’ve been that woman who strutted into a restaurant clutching a bottle of gluten-free soy sauce in a brown paper bag!
If you love someone with a food allergy, sensitivity, or health-related restriction, ask them what they’d like you to do for them. I was fearful for friends or even family to cook for me because cross-contamination is so innocently and easily done. Ask them to help you understand the hidden ingredients, and necessary utensil safety. If you know someone is going to be there with a restriction, write down what ingredients and even brands of ingredients you used along with the recipe so they can see for themselves what’s in it. If you’re the one with the restriction, take extra food to gatherings for yourself so you never have to worry about having something to eat.
Relationships are built and cultivated around meals. Remember that with every change you make, with every person you educate, you’re doing your part to ensure you get to enjoy those relationships for many years to come! OL