I Won’t Let My Food Allergies Stop Me From Being Healthy

I’m allergic to a big percentage of the food pyramid—nuts, soy, seeds, legumes, and most raw fruits and vegetables. It started with nuts about 15 years ago, and the rest revealed themselves since then. I know it sounds like a lot, but it is manageable and I actually don’t know anything different.

How do I manage it? I read ingredients on everything. I annoy servers, chefs, and flight attendants with my spiel (which I’ve perfected by now), and rarely eat food from someone else’s kitchen. Most people can’t comprehend a life with my allergies, but I don’t have a choice: I need to avoid these foods in order to stay alive.

I found out about my allergies the hard way. When I was three, a cookie laced with almond paste nearly killed me. I have no recollection of that particular incident, but I’m told that I turned an alarming shade of blue.

I honestly marvel at the fact that I made it through my childhood. Back then, there were no nut-free classrooms or cafeteria tables, and labels didn’t come with allergy warnings. Nut-free bakeries weren’t a “thing” yet, either.

Most people can’t comprehend a life with my allergies, but I don’t have a choice: I need to avoid these foods in order to stay alive.

As a kid, my baked goodies were either homemade, or purchased at my local bakery, where the owner’s brother also suffered from life-threatening nut allergies. That bakery is still around to this day, and I still ask the owner whether he’d let his brother eat what I’m buying. It’s a strange sort of comfort, but knowing that the severity of my condition is understood on a personal level means the world to me. That just isn’t the way it is everywhere else, though, so my parents trained me to be vigilant about my food choices. Hyper-awareness is what’s kept me alive.

Most days, I’m okay with the hand that I’ve been dealt. At 29, I know how to talk about my dietary restrictions and what to look out for. I’ve even developed my own set of survival rules that, by now, are second nature. I’m used to it. But when all of the recipes I see incorporate something that is my equivalent to kryptonite, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing out on something.

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Without nuts, seeds, fruits, legumes, or soy, it feels like there’s not much left to work with. Actually, look up any cleanse, diet, food challenge, or meal plan and I guarantee that my particular allergens are the centerpiece to the dish. It’s usually easy enough for me to just leave out the offending item, but it can get super-discouraging because I want to eat healthier than my body allows. Most people eat fruits, nuts, and soy to stay healthy!

In an effort to eat healthier, I added one more item to my list of forbidden foods, by choice: meat. I wanted to become vegetarian. I know you’re thinking that I’m nuts (pun intended), but eating healthy felt impossible with all of my allergies, so I wanted to figure out different ways to incorporate more veggies into my diet. I wanted to focus on eating healthfully.

I used to eat a lot of meat. It’s fair to say six out of seven dinners were meat-based meals, with a small portion of cooked veggies and grains on the side. Looking back, it wasn’t exactly the image of a well-balanced plate. At restaurants I’d switch it up between burgers, wings, chicken dishes, and the occasional pastrami sandwich. If I wasn’t brown-bagging it for lunch, I’d pick up a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips at the deli by my office.

Related: 7 Things You Should Always Check On A Nutrition Label—Other Than Calories

When I started paying attention to my body’s reaction to the food I was eating, I realized that those sandwiches were giving me headaches and heartburn. The meaty dinners left me bloated and uncomfortable. For dessert? Well, I’m no stranger to sugar. I ate small dishes of ice cream (Haagen-Dazs vanilla bean, thank you) far more often than I’d like to admit. It was how I unwound after a long day. I baked a lot, too. It was how I made up for the fact that I couldn’t safely eat dessert anywhere but my own home.

My switch to a vegetarian lifestyle inspired a complete revision of all of my eating habits. Not only did I cut out meat, but I also decided to completely cut processed foods, and cut back on refined flour and sugar. I gave up almost all of my comfort foods in one fell swoop: fried chicken, pastrami, burgers, and wings. Even ice cream and cookies.

Embracing a vegetarian diet has shown me that healthy eating is possible, despite my challenges. I used to lament over how much healthier I’d be if only I didn’t have any allergies, but loading up on even more whole foods and plants has turned my life around.

Related: Shop plant protein, perfect for vegetarians. 

I feel lighter, less bloated, more focused, and have more energy. I fuel my body with plenty of cooked, vitamin-rich veggies, which I balance out with whole grains or quinoa. My protein comes from Greek yogurt, eggs, and vegetables like mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts—all chosen for their high protein content. And as I learn the benefits of each vegetable, I am able to tailor my meals to make sure I’m getting what I need.

I used to lament over how much healthier I’d be if only I didn’t have any allergies, but loading up on even more whole foods and plants has turned my life around.

I work full-time in an office and spend two hours each day commuting, so making sure I’m well fed is essential. On Sundays I spend hours digging through cookbooks and blogs in search of healthy, allergy-friendly, vegetarian meals. I make almost everything from scratch—it’s a comforting process that gives me complete control over what goes into my food.

Most mornings, I start my day with homemade whole wheat toast drizzled with honey and feta cheese. Cucumber is one of the few raw veggies I can manage in small amounts, so sometimes I’ll skip the cheese, shmear on a nice Greek yogurt sauce, and throw on a few slices of cucumber for an extra crunch.

I recently discovered that I can tolerate uncooked apples if I wash and peel the skin off of them, so I try to eat at least one per day. For lunch, I’m either having leftovers from the previous night, or a vegetable sandwich. Dinners vary—I’ll have veggie-packed pastas, stir-fries, flatbreads, cauliflower steaks, veggie stews, and salads. Eating vegetarian is a new way for me to be creative. The meals are (almost) never boring, and there are actually so many more options than I ever dreamed possible. (Thanks, Internet.)

I may never get to try roasted sunflower seeds, eat a salad with almond slivers, dig into some lentil soup, or feast on homemade hummus, but every day I’m expanding my horizons by finding new ways to prepare allergy-friendly, veggie meals. My only regret is that I didn’t figure it out sooner.