On Dietary Restrictions

Forgive me, but today I’d like to talk about food allergies. When my son was a baby, he was very fussy. He had what I know now are classic symptoms of an allergy–persistent eczema, a constant stuffy nose, and gas. He had diaper rashes that were epic–these things would cause burns to his bum that left him bleeding and screaming after one bowel movement. It was a nightmare.

It took us a long time to realize what was going on. We tried everything to get rid of the eczema and control for the diaper rashes. We assumed that his stuffy nose was due to environmental allergies, and that his gas was due to eating too fast (he was a gobbler). Finally, someone suggested to us that his issues might, just maybe, be related to a food sensitivity or allergy. They suggested that we start with dropping dairy (cow’s milk products), and see where that led us. It changed our lives.

Immediately the eczema and rashes stopped. We had been warned that it could take up to a month for the elimination diet to take effect. That it would take up to two weeks for the dairy proteins to clear from my system (I was breastfeeding) and another two weeks to clear from his. But within a week, we saw a noticeable difference. The evidence was clear. We had a dairy allergy to contend with.

At first, life was hard. I went to the grocery store and cried. I had no idea what to buy, how to shop and cook for someone with a food allergy. I called a friend in a panic, asking for advice. She calmly helped me plan meals, one day at a time. We also went to an allergist, just to be sure. Our scratch tests came back negative for the things we were worried about (dairy and sesame), but positive for a dozen things he ate on a regular basis with no reaction. The doctor assured us that false positives were possible, and that based on symptoms, it sounded like we had a definite allergy, and to work around it the best we could. He informed us that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and that our son would likely eventually outgrow his allergy.

Since then, I’ve learned that life dairy free, while a pain, isn’t as hard as I initially thought. We had to rethink our eating habits. No more cooking things in butter, using tons of cheese or milk in a recipe, none of that. No more ice cream. No more chocolate. No more cheesecake. It was, to say the least, an adjustment. I couldn’t have been more sad about the loss of cheese in my diet. I was a big cheese eater, and I loved ice cream and milkshakes as my go-to dessert.

Dairy free life can be do-able. There are a plethora of substitutions out there. Dairy free butter isn’t exactly the same, but it’s close. Almond milk has less milkfat so it’s not good for baking, but it’ll do for cereal and drinking. We were lucky in that goat’s and sheep’s milks were safe, so we had cheese options. There’s also vegan cheese, which isn’t great raw, but when it’s used in cooked food, it’s not bad (I think it tastes slightly buttery). There’s even coconut milk that cooks into a terrific caramel. The biggest adjustment was simply finding meals that didn’t contain dairy products. This led us to living a cleaner eating lifestyle.

Eating out was our biggest headache. It became a nightmare sometimes, trying to navigate a poorly written allergen menu at a restaurant, sending back dish after dish made incorrectly, or just trying to guess what was safe. (Safety note: we rarely guessed, because it wasn’t worth the exposure risk, and I wouldn’t encourage it.) Family meals could also be danger zones. Our family understood our allergy challenges, but they didn’t really “get” it, or they weren’t food savvy enough that they were able to prepare dishes safely, which often meant bringing our own dishes to family meals.

Our son soon became aware of his own allergies, and learned to avoid the basic, obvious ones. But that also meant he was old enough to know when he was being left out. That was never fun. It was hard to tell a 3, 4, or 5 year old that he couldn’t have a cupcake like all of his friends in school because he was allergic. We often found ourselves bringing alternate foods to daycare for him, whenever a party was planned.

The good news is, soon enough, we were able to do a baked dairy trial (this was about a year ago) which went swimmingly. He passed with flying colors, no reaction whatsoever. We incorporated baked dairy into his diet regularly, as per the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network suggestion (based on an extensive study done on dairy allergies), and waited. Last week, we did a dairy challenge. We allowed him to eat milk chocolate.

And he passed. No reaction. We ventured slowly into other foods. Cheeses. Ice cream. Now milk. he’s passed every new food with flying colors. No reaction! We’re celebrating here, the fact that our food choices have been opened up. We still haven’t told the boy, because we’re treading carefully in case of a reaction, but the great news is, it looks like we may have outgrown our food allergy.

I couldn’t be more relieved.

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