Food Allergies | Autoimmune Disease | Fast Food | Convenience Food | Lifestyles
From the very beginning, I knew that writing about eating real food – let alone convincing anyone that eating real food is a viable, valuable, and vital activity — would be a hard sell.
All I need to imagine is the tired eyes of a work weary parent, or an over-worked employee at a corporation with flexible hours who never has time to get a proper meal, and I know that my most powerful statement, “Heal yourself with the medicine of real food” would likely be heard as an ideal to aspire to, not an action to live by.
Why? Because we perceive that statement as a lofty goal, and not an achievable end-destination. We think it’s too inconvenient to live without the conveniences of modern-day eating, which offers taste, ease, and practicality.
And of course, there is a price to pay for that convenience. Just look around. I watch people coming in and out of food comas, over indulging on alcoholic and sugary beverages, and not understanding why they feel like crap all the time. “But I can get away with this,” says one friend, a reference to not feeling sick immediately after eating a favorite dish at a restaurant.
Since it took a long time to get where our nation is with convenience food eating, I don’t imagine it will go away quickly. There is much you would have to overcome. However, if you’re ready to try — or, like me, it’s “ready or not” because of a medical condition that requires you to change your eating habits now — here are a few things to consider.
The Inconvenience of Changing How We Relate to Food
How did we get from the time when Grandmother and Mother hadn’t even heard of Frito Lay’s Funyuns that you could add to a bean casserole, to the present, when we are grabbing food on-the-run, and slurping our over-sweetened calories through a straw?
One day while grocery shopping, it occurred to me that it actually took an act of inconvenience to avoid convenience foods and the faster-is-better food mentality that has radically changed the way we relate to food.
After shopping the perimeter of the store for the fresh foods, such as eggs, meats and seafood, and fruits and vegetables, the only things remaining were four packaged foods that I purchase on a regular basis, and of those four, one of them was no longer being reliably stocked. Half that time I checked, the shelf was empty. A competing product had an ingredient in it I could not have (an emulsifier), and so I would not be able to assemble the meal I wanted to have later in the day. After asking an employee when they would have it in stock again, he informed me that it would be “sometime”, and that I could get it cheaper if I ordered it on Amazon.com.
After pricing it out on Amazon, I decided to add this product to my list of other foods I order in bulk, because indeed, it is significantly cheaper to buy it online. Several days later, I had twelve cans of BPA-liner free, emulsifier-free full-fat coconut milk, which I use in my coffee, post-exercise protein shake, baked items, allium-free hummus, and a host of other foods that call for milk. You can even make whipped coconut milk “cream” for dessert toppings and fancy coffee drinks. I have a true milk allergy, so there has been no other way around it except to go dairy free.
One of the shifts that happens when you become medically-reliant on eating real food is that food is the vehicle for staying healthy, not just a stop gap to address the initial cues of hunger. If I had bought the other competing product on the grocery store shelf, there would have been health hell to pay. I know from past experience that whenever I eat a food with an emulsifier in it, my guts transmorgrify (a Calvin and Hobbes term) into, “Grumpy Tummy”, and I regret the choice to address my hunger cravings over my health 100% of the time.
In essence, I get away with nothing, and there are no cheats.
I had to change the way I related to food to consistently make the correct choices about what to eat. And in that sense, my friends, my Coach, my doctor — they all say the same thing: though not a single one of them would wish my food allergies and Autoimmune Disease on me, both of these conditions force me to think of food as both fuel and medicine.
Food isn’t entertainment, a babysitter, or a way to sidestep boredom. Food isn’t the way I relate to sadness, happiness, or stressful situations. By changing my relationship to food, I don’t struggle with high cholesterol, risk of heart attack or stroke, or obesity and related metabolic disorders. I don’t eat to lose weight; I simply eat to remain alive and healthy.
Changing the way you relate to food is indeed, inconvenient, and a good amount of the food industry is counting on it. Do not expect your local restaurant, fast-food chain, taco truck, or perhaps even your family members, to agree with you or to make it easy to choose inconvenience over immediacy. If you are going to choose your food in different way, you have to relate to food differently, which is an internal switch with an external outcome.
The Inconvenience of Loss of Spontaneity
When asked what people with Celiac Disease miss most when they cut all the gluten out of their diet, inevitably someone will mention the loss of being able to go anywhere and eat whatever they choose without planning, preparing, and thinking ahead.
By adding bulk coconut milk to my list of other foods I buy in bulk (the aforementioned example), all I had to do was to become more organized with my budget and my time. And for many people, being organized instead of being spontaneous, is the crux of the problem.
If I want to take a long hike in the woods, I have to plan:
- Night before meal: sodium intake, fluid intake, balanced protein/fat meal,
- Pre-hike snack, snacks during the hike, and snack after the hike
- Meal after the hike.
And the majority of that food should not come from a box, package, container, or restaurant. It’s about as spontaneous as a garden slug crossing a sidewalk!
To give you an idea of what the loss of spontaneity does to relationships, take Valentine’s Day. My husband asked me over three weeks ago what I’d like to do to celebrate, and what kind of meal I might want to prepare. He understands that he can’t just surprise me by taking me somewhere fancy, because eating out can put more stress on me to know what I can and can’t order in that surprise location’s kitchen. There is also that disappointment of paying $60 for a plate of something so simple, I could have made it at home for a third of the cost, and tailored it to my needs without giving a server a workout by running between our table and the kitchen multiple times over the course of the evening to double check that the food is allergen and gluten free.
It isn’t spontaneous to eat at home. However, it is much safer, and I personally have seen enough of the insides of an ER to know that safe is good!
Procrastinating to the last minute on food-oriented activities creates more stress and anxiety. But organizing yourself — and remaining in a state of food readiness — requires a constant upkeep that not everyone executes well.
Walk around our kitchen and our home, and you’ll get the picture quickly. It’s oriented around the kind of activities I want to be able to do, whenever I want to do them. I have to pouches of sweet potato puree in the freezer, ready to be dethawed overnight if need be; there’s a rice cooker full of brown rice ready for a dark cocoa brown rice protein shake; swimwear have been washed and dried, next to a pre-packed bag with swim cap, goggles, ear plugs, and nose clip; snow hiking gear are in one area, and winter activity clothing in one single duffle bag, clean and ready for use.
Batch cooking takes planning, folks. But once you plan for the next month’s batch cooking sessions (four different plans, placed into a calendar), you won’t need to tweak that plan for a long time. Lather, rinse, repeat, and leave the second shorter batch cooking session for later in the week to add a little variety and risk-free surprise. You can check out my Trello use in this article on organizing your batch cooking, grocery shopping, and meal planning.
The spontaneity isn’t so much in the food, yet you can relocate spontaneity into the activities that you do, and the places your own safe food and healthy snacks can allow you to go.
The Inconvenience of Eating By Yourself
There is but one part of the formula for bearing with the inconvenience of avoiding the convenience food lifestyle I haven’t been able to adequately address. In order to get my food needs met on a daily basis, I spend time cooking my meals, preparing my meals, and then eating a good portion of those meals, completely and utterly alone.
I know I am not the only one who struggles with this. I know others who do the same, even with supportive family members close by. There is just a lonely component to chronic disease and food allergy living, where they (the non-allergic, non-diseased person) gets to forget about your condition. And you don’t get to forget. You can’t get away from it.
My early childhood days are filled with memories of the family dinner table, with five or six different dishes of food served communally, and all of us digging in with either a serving spoon or with the opposite end of our chopsticks. Food moved in the direction of plate to individual rice bowl. When there were guests, there were lively conversations, breaks between the serving of new dishes, and dinner was often followed by a time of singing songs and sharing stories. Lucky for us, we’re a fairly musical family, and so the songs were often fair to good performances.
Fast forward to today, and I am eating my lunch bento at my office between clients, shoveling it in quickly so that I might have enough time to wash up, take a comfort break, stretch, and attend to texts and emails that may have arrived while with the previous client. For every day I am in my office, it’s the same routine. I eat alone.
Friends know I can’t easily eat out, and so those invitations that used to be a part of my social life pretty much died out within a few months of my diagnosis. What few invitations that followed were sometimes awkward situations. How do you tell someone you really enjoy that you can’t go to their gathering at X Restaurant, because that restaurant can’t accommodate your food allergies and disease, and they won’t let you bring in your own food?
All I can say to that the challenge of eating alone is that I feel this loneliness too. It leaves me talking to my cat when I’m cooking at home alone; it’s caused me to turn to some eating in front of the TV while watching a short Netflix show (but only after I’ve plated my food, since I don’t wish to encourage mindless eating, but mindful eating). I just need the sound of others talking and eating.
I’ve even thought of making a thirty-minute, one hour long, and two-hour long Youtube video of friends dining around me and have a variety of fun conversations. Think of it it as a Holodeck for the dining-out experience! As silly as it sounds, it could help make meals feel a bit more normal and civilized.
You see, we were meant to socialize during meals. Mealtimes are a time of connection, communing, and catching up after time apart. What I would want to do with this inconvenience is find a way to use technology to bring us closer together, even during meal times.
One of my hopes when I launch My Allergy Advocate as a brand is to create a platform for people to share meals together, both in person and over the Internet. Instead of being isolated in our homes because of our medically-necessary meals and chronic diseases, we can break some of that isolation by using a video meeting to socialize and eat together.
All you would need is a video camera connected to your computer, the software platform uploaded, and a host. My plan is to host weekly lunches and monthly “family and friends” meal times, first zoned for North America, and then to find hosts for multiple time zones. Keeping the emotional climate positive and supportive, the goal would be help alleviate the loneliness and heaviness of living this most inconvenient way of nourishing and feeding ourselves, and reduce the negative emotional and social impact of this most important lifestyle change.
Are you ready to take on the inconvenience of avoiding convenience food living? Have you already made steps — and received push back from friends or family?
Share your thoughts on this part of the journey, and let’s work on making food fun again, together!