Allergies and the restricted diet

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you’re allergic to several food groups, on an already limited diet, and for health reasons you’re told you have to cut even more food out? It happened to me in August 2018.

When I’m not working or writing about being allergic to everything, I’m singing. I sing in four choirs, with rehearsals up to four times a week. I also sing in pubs as part of a pop duo and as a solo act. So I need my voice. Around two years ago I started to experience problems with my voice. My voice was becoming strained and tired very easily and I would often lose it for no apparent reason. I then started to experience a sore throat. It would feel raw, like razor blades. When I lost my voice just before a big concert I decided enough was enough and I would see my doctor.

My doctor referred me to the ENT department at my local hospital, but when I hadn’t had an appointment for several weeks I called to find out there was an 8-1 week waiting list. With more concerts and cathedral visits coming up I couldn’t wait this long, so I booked an appointment with a private consultant. He talked through my symptoms and my eating habits then did a laryngoscopy, which is a camera that gets passed up your nostril and down the back of your throat. The camera showed that I had a very red larynx, which was a sign of silent acid reflux. It’s called ‘silent’ because there are no symptoms apart from a sore throat or strained voice. Thankfully there was nothing wrong with my vocal folds, but the acid reflux was causing my muscles in my throat to tense, which was causing a mid-glottal gap. When you use your voice, your vocal folds adduct and vibrate to produce sound. The thicker the folds on addiction, the lower the sound; the thinner the folds and the fast the vibration, the higher the sound. Because the tension was pulling at my vocal folds, they weren’t addicting correctly allowing air to get through and producing the strained voice. The gap also meant I was having to work harder to produce a sound, which was tiring in itself.

The consultant put me on a restricted diet for a month, in a bid to blitz the reflux problem and to get my throat back to a better condition. This meant no caffeine (or decaffeinated drinks), as caffeine is drying, no fizzy drinks and no wine (gulp). I also had to cut out/cut down on spicy foods, tomato based foods, peppers and raw red onion. Taking into account my allergies, this is pretty much everything I eat. I also had to cut down my portion size and eat small amounts of food more regularly. That part was easy; I switched to a side plate for my main meals, which means I can’t be tempted to over-eat as I can’t fit any more food on the plate.

With the exception of wine, drinks were fairly easy to change. I switched to red bush (rooibos) tea, which can be drunk with or without milk. It is completely caffeine free, has a pleasant taste and is available in the big supermarkets and some cafes. I completely cut out fizzy drinks, but do find I get the odd craving for a cold bottle of Pepsi Max every now and then. I drink a lot more water. I try to have a glass when I wake up and I carry a folding bottle wherever I go. I did cut out alcohol for the best part of a month, only allowing myself some at a music festival. Whenever I have a big concert or solo coming up I’ll avoid alcohol in the week leading up to it. I drink water in between glasses of wine, and I’ve reduced the amount I drink in one day.

The question of what to eat is much harder. Most of our meals are tomato or chilli based as these contain no dairy or eggs. My salads always have sliced raw onion in them. And peppers feature in most of our recipes. Tricky.

The first thing I did was go back to the millions of recipe books in my cupboard and look for recipes that we’ve made before and forgotten about. And there were lots of them. My favourite at the moment is a chicken, ham and broad bean risotto made with ham stock that we made ourselves. I’d forgotten how tasty it could be.

The next thing was to look at the tomato/chill/pepper based recipes to see what could be amended to meet the new diet. It was relatively easy to reduce the spiciness of otherwise spicy dishes using dried chilli flakes. I would just use fewer on my plate and Mr Allergy could add more. Simple. Cutting out tomato is virtually impossible. Nearly everything has chopped tomatoes in it. So instead of cutting it out completely we reduced the number of times we eat tomato based foods in a week and tried not to have too many in a row. This meant having salads (without red onion) or tray bakes. If I’m cooking ratatouille, I’ll leave the tomatoes out of my portion and just have the veg. I’ve found we’re becoming much more creative with the use of herbs and spices now that tomatoes and chilli are mostly out of the equation. I’m also not completely avoiding peppers, but as with tomato I limit the quantity and regularity.

An added complication is that I have to take protein pump inhibitors (PPIs) 30 minutes to an hour before I eat, which is tricky. In the morning the alarm goes off at 5:20am. I usually roll out of bed around 5:45am when I realise that my train is not going to be cancelled and I do have to go to London. I make it downstairs by about 6am, take my PPI, make my breakfast, eat my breakfast and run out the door at 6:20am to get the 6:35am train. When I get home at about 6pm on a Monday I have to dive in the shower, wolf down my dinner and run out to choir practice. Most days have something similar. So I’m usually taking my PPI just before I eat, meaning it’s not particularly effective. I also have to take Gaviscon Advance after every meal, which is easy when I’m at home and in the office. But where you’re out with company for dinner or at a conference for work, it’s embarrassing and inconvenient. And the bottles are huge and heavy to carry, meaning I can’t take a nice handbag as it won’t fit. Sometimes I’ll slip off to the loo to take it. If I’m with people I know well I’ll make a joke of it and have a swig from the bottle. But it’s a pain, and one I could do without.

I still have the odd problem. Eating out is particularly difficult. For example I went to a meal with friends at Zizzi. Before I went I’d planned what I was going to have; spiedini pollo. When I got there, Zizzi had other ideas as the spiedini pollo I usually had was no longer on the menu and had been replaced with one that I was now allergic to. In a panic too order something that wouldn’t kill me, I went with the rustica piccante pizza with dairy free mozzarella, which unfortunately contains tomato and lots of chilli and is huge! It was delicious, but far too spicy and there was far too much of it, and I should have stopped there. But there was dessert on the menu that I wasn’t allergic to, and my mantra is that if there is something on the menu that I can eat, I’ll have it. So I did. And I regretted it. My throat was sore and my voice was terrible for over a week.

I spoke to my voice therapist about it and she said that if I wanted to heal my voice I would need to be disciplined about my food. Which would be fine if I had a choice of what I can and can’t eat. But when I’m in a situation like Zizzi where the only thing on the the menu is something that contains tomato, chilli and peppers, what do I do? Not eat? Or do I just not go out to eat, so I can always prepare my own food. How miserable and boring would life be? What I’ve taken away from this experience is that if something contains chilli, I should probably ask for no chilli or fewer chillis to limit the heat. If the dish contains tomatoes, don’t eat tomatoes the next day. If the dish served to me is enough to feed a small third world country – you know where I’m going with this. I just have to be sensible. Sometimes I’m going to slip up. Last Saturday we went to our local Italian restaurant for Mr Allergy’s birthday and I ate more in three courses than I’d eaten over the previous seven days. But I didn’t have the spaghetti bolognese, instead I had the daily special calves liver and bacon, which was delicious and is something I wouldn’t cook at home so it made a real change. I had melon and prosciutto for starter (nothing bad there). And I shared dessert with my friend.

Acid reflux symptoms can ease over time, and I think I’m getting to that stage. However I do still need to manage my diet to stop it getting back to how it was, which is hard and upsetting at times. Singing means so much to me, so I know I need to look after my voice, but the added complication of my allergies does compound the situation. But at least I now have the tools in my toolbox to manage the problem to the best of my ability.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else that has allergies and a restricted diet for health reasons, and how you manage it, so please leave me a comment.

Image attribution: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

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Allergy testing in 2019; what to expect and what not to do

I must start my post by apologising. I know I haven’t posted for quite a while as I’ve been busy studying for an exam and writing assignments. I’m still mid-study, but something happened to me yesterday that I want to write about, so I’m typing this while sat on the train home from an all day seminar.

Over the summer of 2018 I had two allergic reactions to unknown foods. They were pretty bad reactions, one of which left me with a swollen, puffy face and eyes for approximately 24 hours. It wasn’t a good look:

I’d not had a reaction like that for more than 10 years, so I decided it was time to see my GP about being re-tested.

My appointment day finally arrived yesterday. Mr Allergy battled his way through the rush hour traffic to get us to Southampton General Hospital for 9am. The traffic tried its best to thwart us, but at 8:58am he chucked me out of the car towards the West Wing entrance while he disappeared to find the elusive hospital parking space.

The night before the test I thought I’d better check the appointment letter to see where I had to go and find out how long it would take to get there. I also thought I ought to find out whether or not I needed to avoid any particular foods in advance of the test. What I hadn’t realised (and if I’d actually read the letter when it arrived, I would have known) is that you’re supposed to stop taking antihistamines 3-5 days before a skin test. I didn’t do this, so upon arrival at my appointment I had to own up and say I’d taken a tablet the day before.

I’ve had skin testing done before, over 10 years ago. I also would have been tested as a child, but I don’t remember this as I was too young. The test I remember was where the specialist tested different allergens on my skin. The results showed a very severe peanut allergy as well as allergies to dairy, egg, other types of nuts, fish, pollens and animal fur.

I couldn’t have a skin test this time because of the presence of antihistamine in my system. However, my specialist told me this wasn’t actually a problem. Apparently skin tests on people who had bad eczema as a child can give a false positive result, as the skin is naturally more sensitive. For results to be accurate they need to be read in conjunction with blood tests. Thus, I lost around 7-8 ampules of the red stuff to a friendly looking vampire in the phlebotomy department.

It was a fascinating appointment. Things have moved on considerably in the space of only a few years. I’m due to go back for some skin testing once my blood test results are in. I’ve also been referred to a nutritionist who can make sure I’m not missing anything vital in my diet. Once all of the tests are complete I may be put on a programme of introducing different foods, which both excites and scares the bejeezus out of me.

I also learnt that it is possible for a person to have an allergy to locusts (for the record I don’t think I’m allergic to them). Apparently it’s similar to a shellfish allergy and brings on hay fever-type symptoms. This came up in conversation as, in my bid to be allergen free, I have pet geckos; little did I know my pets’ food could cause allergic reactions. For clarification, it’s an airborne allergen, the allergy isn’t from eating the locusts, although I’m sure if you did feel a bit partial to a ‘hopper’ it might give your mouth a tingle. It does make me wonder what happens if/when insects become a main part of the human diet; will new food allergies appear?

The key thing I learnt is that the method of treating allergies now is very different from the methods in the early eighties when I was first diagnosed. The medical opinion back then was to avoid the allergens altogether with the hope you would grow out of it. Unfortunately for me, this means that I have never had the opportunity to desensitise from these allergens and I’ve grown into more allergies as I’ve got older. If I was diagnosed as a child now, they would expose me to the allergens to help build up an immunity. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so I’ve got to work with how things are now, in the hope it might get a little bit better.

That’s all from me for now. Hopefully I’ll have some good news over the next 6-12 months, but I’ll keep you posted on how things go.

Quick and easy lunch idea

For a quick and easy, tasty lunch, try grilling a block of Violife Mediterranean Style Block (a dairy free Vegan halloumi substitute).

Cut the block in half, season with salt and pepper and serve in a toasted pitta with hummus, falafel and a handful of mixed salad leaves. Yummers!

A sundae on Saturday

I’ve. Just. Had. The. Best. Ice cream. EVER!

I’m staying in Cardiff at the moment, singing with a visiting choir at Llandaff Cathedral. In between services we have a bit of time to ourselves to see the sights and hit the shops. This weekend Mr Allergy joined me, so I Googled top things to do in Cardiff.

We started out with a walk to Cardiff Bay, which was blustery and a bit drizzly. We had hoped to look around Cardiff Castle, but it was really busy with groups of tourists. So instead of touring the castle I took us into Castle Arcade, which is opposite the castle.

The arcade is filled with quirky eateries and shops such as Magic and Mayhem, a shop dedicated to all things Harry Potter. Opposite Magic and Mayhem is something called Science Cream. This is an ice cream parlour, but not as you know it. The ice creams are all made using liquid nitrogen and are made to order.

The flavours are quirky and fun, and change from day to day. Best of all, they have a vegan ice cream which is made using coconut milk.

Today’s vegan ice cream was Parma Violet flavour, served with edible viola flowers, honeycomb and a purple berry sauce. After only a short wait, the ice cream sundae arrived and it looked amazing. I ordered a small, and it was huge! It was so pretty with the violas, I almost didn’t want to eat it.

Sometimes things that look good let you down on flavour but boy, that was not the case with this ice cream. It tasted just like the Parma Violet sweets I had as a child. The ice cream was silky and smooth, which is different to many coconut milk ice creams that tend to be a bit grainy. The berry sauce was slightly tart, which perfectly complemented the sweetness of the ice cream. The honeycomb pieces were an added stroke of genius, and added a lovely crunchy texture to the sundae.

Mr Allergy had the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Swirl sundae, which looked equally amazing, but was not very Allergy Girl-friendly!

Science Cream is a fantastic gem and I would highly recommend a visit for allergy sufferers and normals alike, as it produces top quality products with a touch of panache and theatre that you won’t find elsewhere. Next time I’m in Cardiff I look forward to trying a different flavour, or maybe I’ll try a Masterclass. In the meantime it has inspired me to get the ice cream maker out at home and have a crack at making my own. I wonder what a weird and wonderful flavours I’ll come up with?

Tried and tested: Livia’s Kitchen Raw Cookie Dough Nugglets

Shopping in my local Tesco I found this new treat from Livia’s Kitchen in the Free From section. Not one to pass new things by, I thought I’d give it a try. I really like the Salted Caramel Raw Millionaire Bites, so I had high hopes for these cookie dough Nugglets.

The serving is a good size for a not-too-naughty perk me up on the commute home, but there is quite a lot of sugar in the recipe (although from good sources including dates, maple syrup and coconut sugar). At £1.50 for 35g it’s quite expensive, but most Free From foods generally are.

The recipe is dairy, egg, nut and gluten free, however it is produced in a factory that handles nuts and eggs.

The packet was a little tricky to enter, as once I’d ripped at the indicated area, I was l left with only a small gap to get into.

Not wanting to let that deter me, I wiggled a finger in and expanded the opening. Having freed the Nugglets from their trapping it was time to taste. They’re a good bite-sized, chocolate-coated morsel, probably about Malteser size. The chocolate coating wasn’t entirely even and didn’t look quite as perfect as on the packaging, but it looked ok. I took a bite.

The filling is very sweet from the dates, with a hint of saltiness from the Himalayan Pink Salt. Although tasty, unfortunately the filling is rather dry and not as squishy as I was expecting from cookie dough – instead it was quite crumbly. On the packaging the chocolate is described as ‘velvety.’ I’ve had more velvety chocolate (Ombar, for example), but it wasn’t bad chocolate.

My verdict is that they’re ok. They’re not terrible, but neither are they my favourite. Will I buy them again? Probably not, especially if given the choice between these and the Millionaire’s Bites. I have a Chocolate Brownie flavour to try next, so watch this space for my next review!

Tried and tested: Swedish Glace Caramel Toffee Cones

Ok, so I promised I would review Swedish Glace’s new Caramel Toffee ice cream cones. Here goes ! (Any excuse to eat ice cream!!)

The recipe is dairy, nut and gluten free, but does contain soy.

As with the strawberry and vanilla cones, once removed from the wrapper, the ice cream looks just like the one in the picture.

Unfortunately the bottom of my cone was missing, but I guess that might happen with any cone, as they can be quite delicate and easily bashed during transport. Luckily there is a thick chocolate coating inside which stopped the drips!

The chocolate topping is the same as the strawberry and vanilla cone so I won’t repeat what I’ve previously said, and instead concentrate on what’s underneath. The ice cream is creamy and rich as expected from Swedish Glace, but the toffee flavour is quite subtle. I think that if I didn’t know it was toffee flavoured I wouldn’t have guessed. The caramel is also quite subtle, possibly because my tastebuds have got used to salted caramel, but the flavour is good and, as with the strawberry sauce, it is generous.

I think personally out of the two I prefer the strawberry, but both are very enjoyable and made a nice change from Tesco’s own brand Free From cones.

I bought another pack recently and I found this new batch to have a more intense toffee flavour, so perhaps I was just unlucky the first time around.

I’ll definitely buy these again, and it’s great to have more choice in a fairly limited market. Thanks Swedish Glace for another good quality product. I look forward to seeing what comes next!

Tried and tested: Swedish Glace vanilla cones with strawberry sauce

There is nothing better than a cold ice cream on a hot day, so I was very excited to try these new vanilla and strawberry cones from Swedish Glace.

There are lots of new dairy free ice creams on the market, but many are made with almond milk and/or hazelnuts, which is no good for a nut allergy sufferer like me. These ice creams from Swedish Glace seem to tick all the right boxes.

Sometimes the ice cream looks nothing like the picture on the box, so I was rather pleased to open the wrapper and find it most definitely resembled the picture on the packaging.

The chocolate coating is really good. It’s dark without being bitter, nice and rich and thick. This is the coating I wish was on their ice cream sticks, it’s much better.

Once I got through the chocolatey layer, the vanilla ice cream is what you would expect from Swedish Glace if you’ve ever eaten any of their other products. It has a good creamy consistency and the flavour is an intense deep vanilla.

The next test was the strawberry sauce, which is a generous helping of sweetness, swirled all the way to the bottom.

The cone is substantial, held together well compared to some other gluten free products, and didn’t go soggy.

My only real gripe is that the packing of each individual unit is identical to the toffee flavour packaging so if, like me, you have both flavours in the freezer you have to store them in the boxes, which takes up a lot of room.

In terms of price, at £3.89 these are a bit dearer than Tesco own brand Free From strawberry and vanilla cones, which were £2.25 at the time of writing. There’s not a massive difference in terms of taste, but in my opinion the Swedish Glace cones use slightly better quality ingredients for a richer, more decadent treat.

Watch this space for my review of the toffee cones!