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Are Allergies Making You Fat?

February 26, 2011 •  one comment.

 •  Blog, News, Uncategorized

From Time to Run Like a Girl

At AllergyKids, we are continually inspired by those who are making strides to improve their own health and the health of those that they love, especially in the face of enormous challenges, and we are honored to feature their stories in the hopes that they serve as catalysts for change. Here is one from a woman who just might do that:

Like many people, I grew up with a short list of common allergies—mold, dust, cats, ragweed, and a few medications. As a small child, these were an issue due to chronic ear infections, but as I grew older, they faded to the background. By the time I was a teenager, I was so concerned about my weight I wouldn’t have noticed if the allergy bus ran me over in the street as long as it was fat-free and low-calorie. And the truth is, unlike a lot of young girls who develop dangerous obsessions with their weight without cause, I was one who needed to keep these sorts of thoughts in mind.

I had been overweight since I was ten years old—and it wasn’t because my parents let me eat junk or failed to have me exercise. It’s quite the opposite, actually. My mom was a proponent of organic/chemical free eating before it was ‘cool’. She made her own baby food, packed our lunches with healthy, home-made snacks and treats, and even did her baking with whole wheat and fructose to help give deserts some added health value. I am just one of those people who will always have to be extra careful about their weight, and despite healthy eating and exercise, I learned this at a young age. Consequently, my weight has always yo-yoed.

A few months before my 24th birthday I was the thinnest I had ever been. I was following a well known diet program and eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. I was also preparing for an overseas move, as I had been offered a job teaching in England. I was excited, and stressed. I went about making preparations for my move, which included seeing the dentist before I left. After visiting the dentist, I went to meet some old friends for dinner to say good–bye. I bit into a slice of pizza and instantly knew something was wrong. My lips and face felt like they were going numb, they had a ‘pins and needles’ sort of sensation. I remember asking my friends if my face looked OK, they assured me it did. The next morning I woke up to find my lips inflated to five times their normal size, and red, splotchy, almost hand-print like marks across my face. My doctor said he couldn’t be sure without more tests, but he thought I had developed a latex allergy. The marks on my face and lips were from the dentist’s gloves. The tomato sauce on the pizza combined with the stress of moving was metaphorical ‘straw that broke the camel’s back.’ Since I was leaving the country in two days, he gave me an epi-pen and some steroids to reduce the reaction and told me to see a doctor once I arrived in England.

I know what some of you are thinking: how is tomato sauce involved in this? Tomato sauce is involved because latex is an allergen that is cross reactive with food. There are a number of foods that have a direct relation to latex (bananas, avocados, kiwis, chestnuts), and there is also a much longer list of foods that are less related, but can still cause a reaction. What is also tricky is that latex allergies are still being researched, so the list is different depending on when you receive it or who complied it. The list I link to above is from the American Latex Allergy Association, but other lists I’ve received from various doctors or found via the internet list additional foods and herbs. At the time of my initial visit to the doctor, he did not give me any of these lists, he just told me to see a doctor in England.

So, armed with an epi-pen and steroids, I moved across the ocean. And here is where things went bad- socialized medicine is a wonderful thing in that everyone gets basic care. But, sometimes getting more than basic care when something is not urgent is more difficult. The policy of my local clinic in England was that allergy testing could only be done if situations when one’s quality of life was in danger. I was never able to prove that this was the case for me. I would encounter something made of latex or related to latex, have a reaction (either a rash, or my face would swell, or I would have a gastrointestinal reaction), make an appointment, and by the time I went in for the appointment, the reaction would have subsided and the doctor couldn’t ‘see’ anything. I did my own research and did the best I could to find out what I should/should not encounter or eat, but mostly, I got frustrated and started eating only things I knew were safe, most of which were not healthy. Even after I returned to the United States three years ago, hopeful that the system here would be easier to navigate, I was met only with the response that latex is a difficult allergy to treat and the best treatment is to avoid contact.

When fruits and veggies hurt to eat, it’s easy to convince yourself that potato chips, cookies, processed foods, burgers, etc., are an acceptable alternative. Consequently, over the past four years I’ve gained 60lbs. I convinced myself there was no way to eat well with a latex allergy, and contented myself to just eat what I wanted. I didn’t go to the gym anymore—it was a mine-field of latex ridden products, and I didn’t even try to walk/run outside because even sporting gear is made with latex based materials, sports bras being one of the chief offenders.

I’m not sure what triggered my desire to get back in shape, but I think mostly I finally got angry. I have a closet full of clothes that don’t fit, a body I hate, and it seems like everything I encounter is toxic. I refused to go to my 10 year high school reunion because of how I look. I got sick of people passing judgment on me for my size, or rolling their eyes at the idea that I’m allergic to vegetables because they think it is a fat lady’s excuse for herself. Whatever happened, I’m on a one-woman mission to take my body back from my allergy.

I started by joining a gym. To do this, I had a special epi-pen holder made to holster to my water bottle so that, in the event of an allergic emergency, I am prepared. Even with this, I still have to be careful. My gym has a rubber floor, so that means no sitting/laying down to stretch or do exercise classes. The yoga mats, resistance bands and resistance balls are all latex-heavy, as is some of the plastic and foam on some of the machines. Luckily, the weight machines are made of non-latex materials, so I can use those with no problem. I also invested in my first latex-free sports bra, which has made such an incredible difference in my outlook on working out! When I was first diagnosed with the allergy, I felt like every time I tried to exercise I couldn’t breathe. I attributed this to being out of shape, but a lot of it was due to the fact that my body was covered in latex and I was touching latex based things at the gym. Obtaining latex-free sports clothes has made a huge difference. Since manufactures are not required to label when products contain latex, I suggest finding a good athletics store and talking to the employees before you try things on. They often have information on the contents of the materials or can direct you to someone who does. I also email customer service before I buy anything online and have them confirm that it does not contain latex.

Most importantly, I’ve started taking my diet back. This is the most difficult part. It’s easy to get rid of latex based things in your home and wardrobe, but eating is more difficult. My most common breakfast when I was in shape pre-allergy was a kiwi and a grapefruit, neither of which I can eat anymore. I ate a lot of low-fat fruit yogurt, which is frequently sweetened with pineapple juice (though usually listed as ‘other fruit juices’ on the label), which I cannot eat anymore. I had to go about dieting and healthy eating like I’d never done it before. I threw away all my old menus and diet notes and have been starting from square one. I’m doing my best to replace my processed foods that have become staples in my diet with lean proteins, and I’m working to find different ways of preparing the veggies and fruits I can eat so that I don’t get tired of them and revert back to unhealthy snacks and sides.

Over the past four years I’ve learned a lot about how to handle this allergy (and how NOT to handle it). I’ve learned how to self advocate with doctors, and how to re-think every day life so that I don’t feel sick or itchy all the time. Part of my plan to get my life back on track is training for a half marathon taking place in February, 2012. I’ve never been a runner, but for someone who is allergic to a lot of the gym, I thought, “why not try?? At least it will get me outside!” My running partner and I are blogging about our training and my battle against latex here: www.timetorunlikeagirl.blogspot.com. And I think the blog was the final piece of the puzzle. I realized that I needed to talk about this—not just to friends and family, but as part of a community of people who also have allergies. I needed to talk to others who know what it’s like to feel bad long enough that you forget what it’s like to feel good. I needed to publicly say that I’m remembering now, and feeling good feels better than I remember.

Oiling Our Food?

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 •  Blog, Uncategorized

Written by Robyn O’Brien

Who knew that oil was so pervasive in our food supply?

But in light of rising fuel prices which are impacting everyone from families to farmers and a report out of the UN that highlights the role that industrial agriculture and its oil-based inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides have to do with climate change, it is important to realize exactly that…how dependent our food supply is on oil.

As a matter of fact, every 24 hours, the US spends $1 billion on imported oil, with food production accounting for 10-17% of our energy consumption.

As prices continue to rise at the pump, it is becoming more poignant than ever to also remember that our agricultural system and means of food production in the US is dependent on fossil fuel.

Conventional food production and distribution requires a tremendous amount of energy—one study conducted in 2000 estimated that at least ten percent of the energy used annually in the United States was consumed by the food industry. As highlighted by the Department of Energy, more recent studies suggest that this number is now closer to 17 percent.

• Most pesticides are petroleum-(oil) based
• Increasing numbers of food additives and colorants are petroleum-(oil) based
• All commercial fertilizers are ammonia-based and produced from natural gas
• Oil allowed for farming implements such as tractors, food storage systems such as refrigerators, and food transport systems such as trucks
• In the US, the average piece of food is transported almost 1,500 miles before it gets to your plate.

But despite the fact that Richard Heinberg, a “peak oil” scholar, said: “How dependent on oil is our food system? Enormously dependent. Fatally dependent, I would say,” perhaps we should hold fast to the knowledge that we are a country that was founded by creative and courageous entrepreneurs, and that since we are all at this table together, together, we can create the changes we want to see in the health of our food system.

So where do we start? Right where you stand…in your kitchen.

Here are six steps to reduce your family’s exposure to oil in our food supply. And remember, to take these in “baby steps”, as change doesn’t happen overnight (you don’t potty train a kid overnight either):

  1. Eat Foods You Can Pronounce (chances are they contain fewer artificial colors, additive and dyes)
  2. Cook it once, eat it twice (recycle those noodles for salad or that chicken in a stir fry)
  3. Purchase something organic, because by law, these products are not allowed to contain these synthetic and oil-based ingredients, dyes and pesticides.
  4. Eat local when possible, as the food miles traveled for these ingredients are far shorter and require less fuel to deliver
  5. Plant something (just one thing…remember those lima beans in cups in school?)
  6. Don’t make “the perfect” the enemy of “the good” (remember, none of us can do everything, but all of us can do something)

And if you think that doing one small thing can’t make a difference, remember to focus on progress not perfection.

Because together, we can affect remarkable change.

Thinking Beyond the Lunch Line

February 24, 2011 •  no comments.

 •  Blog, News

Written by Ed Bruske of www.theslowcook.com

Kids eat what they want and throw the rest away

Experts say they can’t be sure kids will actually eat the increased portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grains called for in new USDA school meal guidelines. And now the Chicago Tribune reports that kids in Chicago are turning up their noses at healthier food. At one school, the Trib measured and found that hundreds of pounds of food were being tossed in the trash ever day at just one school. That included whole apples, oranges and bananas, entire cartons of milk, unopened boxes of cereal.

I observe the same phenomenon every day at the elementary school my daughter attends here in the District of Columbia. I usually stop in twice a day–breakfast and lunch–and photograph the food while watching to see what the kids are eating–or not eating. What I see routinely are kids rejecting “healthier” foods, especially vegetables and whole grains.

Recently, for instance, I was surprised to see kids lining up for seconds at lunch before some kids had even been served their first portions. Turns out what they wanted were the meatballs that came with their whole wheat spaghetti. Otherwise, the pasta along with a wonderful green been salad, a side of corn and a whole wheat roll all went into the garbage can.

So called “plate waste” is nothing new to officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program. In fact, schools use an “offer versus served” option in the meal line designed to cut down on food waste. In order to qualify for federal reimbursements, schools using this option must offer at least five items representing the various food groups, along with milk. But kids are only required to select three of the items. The program is mandatory in upper grades, and optional in elementary schools.

The USDA has studied food waste in school cafeterias, but not since 2002. That study [PDF] did not collect new data, but surveyed the existing studies researchers were able to locate. Their conclusions:

* Food waste comprises about 12 percent of total calories selected by students in the meal line, as reported in the USDA’s 1991-92 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment. This is said to be in the “normal” range. But some studies have found the figure ranging as high as 37 percent.

* Food items most frequently thrown away uneaten are salad, vegetables and fruit.

* Girls throw away more food than boys.

* Younger kids trash more food that older kids.

* The value of wasted food is probably around $1 billion annually.

Researchers found that some strategies, such as allowing kids to create their own plates at “food bars,” help cut down on food waste. But food bars are difficult to implement because of the additional equipment involved. Plus, after the kids make their selections, they then must pass a cash register or “point of sale” station so that an adult can confirm that they have taken the correct foods in the required portion sizes. Imagine the traffic congestion this can create in the cafeteria.

Rescheduling lunch so that it follows recess has been found to reduce food waste, as does giving kids more time to eat. Lunch that is scheduled too soon after breakfast can result in more plate waste, as can scheduling lunch too late, giving kids time to snack on other foods.

Another way to reduce waste is to serve better food. But the Tribune reported that one of the reasons children in Chicago rejected the cafeteria food was because it wasn’t seasoned. The USDA’s proposed guidelines would reduce salt in school food by half over 10 years to reflect the advice given in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Americans get most of their salt from processed foods, which means the food industry will have to find ways to make processed food with much less sodium, or schools will have to start cooking a lot more meals from scratch. Most are not equipped to do so at the moment.

Schools may also be able to increase student acceptance of foods by involving them in menu selection and by incorporating nutrition education programs that include taste-testing foods in the cafeteria before they are served. As I’ve noted many times, the menu here in D.C. has improved significantly in the last year, but there’s nobody in the cafeteria talking to the kids about it. Consequently, I’ve seen all sorts of great food–sauteed local zucchini, for instance, or roasted local sweet potatoes–going straight into the trash without the kids so much as trying it.

The USDA also is funding research into how behavioral science might be deployed to get kids to actually eat healthier foods rather than throwing them away.

The proposed USDA meal guidelines call for doubling fruit and vegetable portions and vastly increasing “whole grain-rich” products in the food line. These changes are likely to increase the cost of serving school food dramatically. But unless steps are taken to engage kids and their parents in this process, my guess is that a great deal of that food will end up at the landfill.

A Texas Revolution

February 21, 2011 •  5 comments.

 •  Blog, News

Written by Robyn O’Brien

This weekend, I had the honor of presenting in Texas. And I was nervous.

The first time that I’d presented in Texas a year and a half ago, six people showed up (and three of them were related to me).

But the audience size had grown over the years, and the event at the Austin Music Hall for a sold-out crowd of 550 people and video cameras doing the livestream thing was daunting…to say the least.

But as I took the stage, I said a prayer and let my heart speak. I had been born and raised in Texas. And I know all too well that this state can be so full of passion and strength.

And as I spoke, calling on the audience to lend their talents and minds to one of the most patriotic things that I think we can be doing right now: protecting the health of our families – who represent not only our future students, entrepreneurs and leaders, but also our future economic prosperity and competitiveness in the global marketplace, something happened.

As they began to stand, I honestly thought that I had missed a cue (was there some slide behind me that I couldn’t see? why were they getting out of their seats?). But when I was called back to the stage, to acknowledge what was happening, I realized that before me stood a room full of Texans, rising up for the food revolution. And it was incredible.

So for that incredible group, inspired to create the kind of health we want to see in our families, our corporations and our economy, here is a list of 9 things that you can do.

9 Steps You Can Take to Protect the Health of Your Loved Ones:

  1. Try to reduce your family’s exposure to processed foods because according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, 75% of processed foods contain genetically engineered ingredients.
  2. Look for “rBGH-free” milk or organic milk. You can find it almost anywhere – from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods, Safeway to Sams. Since rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is a genetically engineered, synthetic growth hormone that is not allowed most developed countries due to health concerns
  3. When you can, try to purchase organic eggs, as they are not from chickens fed corn or soy that has been genetically engineered
  4. Cook with olive oil instead of conventional butter, margarine or vegetable oil which most likely contain genetically engineered ingredients
  5. Avoid conventional soy and corn products (vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup) since most have been genetically engineered
  6. Look for meat and poultry that have not injected with antibiotics and additional synthetic growth hormones
  7. As recommended by the British Dietetic Association, avoid exposing infants under the age of 12 months to conventional soy
  8. When possible, consume organic foods for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in order to reduce your exposure to pesticides (which have recently been linked to hyperactitivity in children and other conditions like cancer, as cited in the Presidents Cancer Report)
  9. Tell a friend, your mom, your brother, your sister. Because together, we will affect remarkable change in the health of our families.

And remember, while none of us can do everything, all of us can do one thing. And sometimes, that one thing just might be the thing that changes the world.

Food for Thought: Can Farming Save Healthcare?

February 17, 2011 •  one comment.

 •  Blog, News

According to research conducted with Illinois consumers, below is a list of what consumers perceive as a “good farm” and a “bad farm.”

Interestingly, according to the Presidents Cancer Panel, children are “far more susceptible to damage from environmental carcinogens (like synthetic pesticides) and endocrine-disrupting compounds than adults.” The exact same list of things that make a “bad” farm.

So rather than label farms as “good” or “bad”, perhaps it would be in the best interest of all stakeholders in the food supply – from farmers to families – to bring transparency to fertilizer costs, assist farmers in debt reduction, reduce fees for licensing and trait use of new technologies and provide farmers crop insurance & marketing program in order to support the growing of crops without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Given that the US spends more on healthcare costs than any other country in the world and that we are one of the only developed countries in the world to have engineered our crops to withstand increasing doses of toxic herbicides, perhaps it is time that we heed the advice of the Presidents Cancer Panel and work with our farmers to build a food system that is in the best interest of all stakeholders and not just the shareholders of the agrichemical corporations.