Are Allergies Making You Fat?
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.