Nobody Asked Me But: Chewing the fat on food, diet and allergies

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Food. There’s no getting away from it. It’s a necessity of life.

Here on Salt Spring, however, it’s not just food that we find essential. There is no social occasion, book club get together, or even innocent grocery store encounter that does not at some point veer off into a serious dissertation on the subject of what we should or should not be eating. Without food as the topic of conversation, we would be lost and adrift without a paddle with nothing left to talk about.

Want a good example? Recently a perfect stranger approached me in the Thrifty’s parking lot. “Celery juice,” she said. “Use a blender. Two cups a day. Every day.” She gave me a wink, and without another word it was adios. Just like that.

Here’s some food for thought. Almost all talk about food revolves around allergies (foods you should avoid), dieting (foods you should avoid) and cleansing fasts (avoiding food, period). Gluten-free diets, for instance, which restrict the intake of all products containing wheat, rye, barley and sometimes oats, have become so mainstream in our island culture that my friend, Bevan, claims he has to carry a shaker of gluten with him whenever he attends a community potluck.

Let’s really sink our teeth into some of these diets and restrictions. First and foremost are food allergies, some of which can be life-threatening. Peanut oil, for instance has been known to cause an anaphylactic shock reaction (impaired breathing, swelling in the throat, a sudden drop in blood pressure, fainting and dizziness) in six out of every thousand people in North America. Other foods, such as tree nuts, dairy, wheat and even garlic can have equally serious consequences when ingested by those who are allergy prone. Personally, I have a nagging allergic reaction to mangoes, which makes me break out in hives that turn into open skin lesions taking weeks to heal. Had the allergy culprit been cinnamon buns instead of mangoes, I would probably weigh 30 pounds less than I do.

Despite what many people claim, most food diets are directly associated with weight loss and body image. When you hear the term “dieting,” you immediately think of losing weight. Chew on that thought for a minute. Although so many think of themselves as being overweight, the means for losing poundage seems to be as diverse as the stars in the Milky Way (an excellent chocolate bar, by the way).

Leading the way in food fads today is the Paleo diet. Essentially, this is what your basic caveman ate eons ago (and no, we are not talking about pterodactyl wings dipped in hot stegosaurus sauce). If you are a Paleo aficionado, you are a flesh eater who has eliminated grains, dairy, sugars, potatoes, vegetable oils and processed food from your dinner plate.

Vegans, on the other hand, avoid any food that can run, swim, crawl or fly away from them if they were to meet in an open field or a dark alley. This includes animal products such as eggs, milk and cheese. There is a particular class of vegans called lacto-ovo (this is not a hard-hitting, stay-at-home Finnish defenceman) who also put animal spinoffs such as honey on their no-no list. Another offshoot of the vegan school is the flexitarian class. If you are a flexitarian, you are a flexible vegetarian who allows yourself the occasional juicy T-bone steak amongst your regular beans, carrots and cauliflower.

Both the Weight Watchers and Atkins diets have been known to help reduce significant quantities of body weight. The first does so by counting the number of calories that are being ingested while the second has the same effect by restricting the amount of carbohydrates in one’s food intake. A modification of the Atkins plan, known as the Ketogenic diet, combines low carbs with a high fat diet washed down with tons of water. Proponents claim that, besides making you lose weight, this eating system puts your body into a metabolic state of ketosis where fat turns into ketones in the liver, which supply energy to the brain.

Possibly the strangest sounding diet around these days is one called Low FODMAP, an acronym for Fermented Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols. This is an elimination diet where you deny your body of certain carbohydrates that aren’t absorbed well by your small intestine and consequently travel to the colon where they are fermented by bacteria. The idea is to reintroduce the exiled foods one by one in order to show whether they are indeed guilty of being the cause of your pain and discomfort. One thing you can be sure of with FODMAP is that practically all the restricted foods will be the ones you enjoy the most and every food that’s okay for you to eat will be one that makes you want to toss your cookies.

Fermentation seems to be a hotly contested issue among foodniks. Everybody knows about beer, wine and cider and is familiar with the arguments for and against these beverages for both health and societal benefits as well as social repercussions. Lesser known concoctions, such as miso (fermented barley, rice or soybeans), kimchi (fermented cabbage and Korean radish), kefir (fermented milk and kefir grains) and kombucha (fermented slightly sweetened green or black tea) have made a severe dent in both the foods we choose to eat and especially those we love to talk about.

When it comes to fermented drinks, we have just touched on the tip of the iceberg. It seems like almost anything can be fermented and someone will claim it promotes a healthy gut and gets rid of ugly warts. You could probably soak your smelly work socks in yeast and sugar, and someone will swear that the resulting product cured them of male pattern baldness.

Nobody asked me, but the next time you run into me in aisle 7 at the grocery store (very likely the cookie section) and the conversation, as it inevitably will, turns to the latest food craze, you can expect to hear this from me: butter tarts, twice a day, every day.

Take a big bite out of that.

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