Chef Tackles Food Allergies
Food allergies affect about 12 million people in this country, and nearly 30 percent of Americans suffer from food intolerances. Seattle-based chef Jess Thomson (left) is one of those people. The award-winning cookbook author recently discovered her sensitivity to gluten, eggs, soy and certain types of vegetables just before her latest cookbook, Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts, was published in September.
"I have lupus, which is an auto-immune disease where your body fights itself," Thomson says. "Though my disease has been well-managed with Western meds, since I'm on immunosuppressants, my body is open to other diseases, so I got started on this path to find a different way to manage it."
In August, Thomson went on an elimination diet, and has been working with a naturopath to learn how to eat and cook in new ways.
SecondAct recently spoke with Thomson about her dietary discoveries and the challenges of managing food intolerances. Here's what she had to say.
SA: Before we get into the foods you can't have, what are some of the good discoveries you've made since your diagnosis?
JT: I will say that it's been really interesting, from a food writing perspective, to find out what things I need to eat, what things I just want to eat, and what things I should be open to cooking with. I had never cooked with coconut oil before, and it turns out that unrefined coconut oil is one of the tastiest things ever. It's been really neat to find all these ingredients and to sort of play with them.
One of the big challenges is breakfast since eggs and flour are in a lot of things. I didn't eat oatmeal before, but I've discovered steel-cut oats, and I just love eating them now. I also now use kale and other greens to make sauces and pestos, and that's also been fun. With grain substitutes, I'd cooked quinoa before, but I had never used much millet, and that was a good discovery. I like to make it into almost a polenta, I overcook it and stir in butter and cheese. It tastes delicious.
SA: What do you miss most?
JT: I miss really good bread, and I miss being able to go to other people's houses and have them feed me. The biggest problem I've found is soy. Many gluten-free breads have soy in them. It's so easy to avoid soy sauce and tofu, but soy lecithin is in many products.
SA: Was it harder at the beginning of your journey, or is it harder for you now?
JT: First, it got a lot harder, and then it got a lot easier. The first month was really, really hard. Part of it was physical, because I did the elimination diet. During that time, I went off of coffee and sugar. There was the initial coffee shock, but then 10 days later it was sugar shock and three days of hell. Then it was the mental ramifications of being that person who no longer eats everything. It's still difficult to get used to seeing myself as someone who has eating limitations because that's never been my identity. It's a different way of living.
SA: Have you had to rethink your own image? Have you had to start new habits?
JT: In the morning, there's a place I [used to] sit to have a cup of coffee, and for a while, I had to sit there and have a cup of ginger tea. But it just wasn't doing it for me. I didn't realize I was so attached to an image of myself as someone who would eat anything. It makes me feel like I'm a high-maintenance brat. It's not my fault, but it's not easy for other people.
SA: What's the new image you have of yourself?
JT: In general, I sort of feel like I'm procrastinating, trying to figure out my new eating for someone who has restrictions, and it's something I need to do. I'm still new to that. I'm still trying to figure it out. It's going to be a process, and I'm okay with that."
SA: Are there any other positive things that have come with your dietary changes?
JT: Since I went off sugar, and now that I've re-introduced it, I am super sensitive. A lot of yogurts I used to eat are too sweet for me, and I'm not [putting] sugar in my coffee. I can taste more flavors, and my palate has opened up. I suddenly also can drink brown liquor. Because I had such a sweet tooth, now there are some bitter flavors that are suddenly very accessible to me. Cauliflower tastes super sweet, and sweet potatoes taste like candy to me. Because I'm eating less sugar, natural sugars take a much broader taste, and that's been very cool. My energy is much more even -- I used to have this afternoon crash."
SA: What's your advice for someone who's newly diagnosed with allergies or intolerances?
JT: I think it's important to go for it whole-heartedly and be positive because if you cheat, you're cheating yourself out of any potential benefit. And if you have to deal with something in your life that makes you sick, you already have extra energy devoted to it. You treat it as a decision like buying a pair of shoes. You don't hem and haw -- you buy the shoes, and you devote yourself to the new diet.
Also, start small. One idea would be to start with one new food a week and try to get to know something about it. Instead of saying 'I'm going to learn everything about gluten-free grains,' pick one. Try polenta or quinoa or millet. Try one of those things and see if you like it and try it a few different ways. Don't trick yourself into thinking you have to change yourself in 24 hours -- that's not going to happen.
Read more: Food Allergies Spark New Careers