From time to time, while my children play on the I-pads at our public library, I like to peruse the cookbook section. A few months ago, I took out a cookbook entitled, It’s All Good, by Gwyneth Paltrow—yes, THAT Gwyneth Paltrow. “Really?,” my husband asked when I brought it home. “Seriously?,” he asked when I had renewed it for the third time. “You’ve got to be kidding me!,” he said when I purchased my own copy. Yes, it’s true. While I’m somewhat embarrassed to be admitting this in such a public forum, I love this cookbook, written by Hollywood’s new-agey-ist celebrity. You know, the one who “consciously uncoupled” from her famous musician husband??
With some rather heavy restrictions on our family diet, I am always on the lookout for new recipes and ideas, and, while this may sound weird to some, I really like to read cookbooks! Though I tend to use recipes merely as a rough guideline and then adapt according to what I have on hand and what I know the little picky-eaters will tolerate, I find the information about how people develop their food philosophies and approaches to cooking endlessly fascinating. I also love that little tummy rumble and mouth-watering you feel when you see something that looks truly scrumptious. But, every once in a while, I come across something in these books that really makes me mad—and this was certainly the case with the above-mentioned cookbook.
Paltrow’s book was motivated by her love of cooking and good food, as well as her own personal health struggles brought on by overworking and not taking good care of herself (sound familiar anyone?). As such, the recipes not only use good-quality, healthy, unprocessed foods, but are the direct result of the many foods she was advised to eliminate from her diet in an effort to feel better and get back on track. The recipes are therefore flexible, adaptable, and give plenty of substitutions to accommodate a wide variety of dietary restrictions. I have used many of the recipes to cook for myself, my husband and even for guests, but probably even more consistently for my children, who seem to relish just about everything I have made from the dedicated kid-friendly section of the book.
So, you might be wondering, what is the problem here? My problem with this book comes from the foreword in which Paltrow describes her new-found knowledge of her health issues and how she has addressed them through food, as well as how she has gotten her whole family involved. So far, so good, right? But then, she explains that she had her whole family, including her school aged children, tested for food sensitivities and allergies, and goes on to recommend these tests for “anyone looking to feel better, shed weight, etc…” Wait…, what?!
As those of you who know our family personally are probably aware, we have not just been touched by food allergies; we have been rocked to our very core. Our daughter, Nili, diagnosed at 10 months old, suffers from life-threatening food allergies to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. For at least the first year after her diagnosis, we had a steep learning curve as we struggled to decipher nutrition and ingredient labels, cook foods that would help her continue to thrive, and teach others in our family and community about the seriousness of her disease. We had to thoroughly check everything that went into her mouth, ask others to please not touch her adorable chubby baby hands or legs until they washed their hands, and always be prepared for the inevitable accidental contact or ingestion. For that entire first year, I was anxious and on edge.
I also learned a LOT about food allergies. Here’s what I have come to understand. First of all, there is a big difference between food sensitivities and allergies. Many of us have foods that our body is sensitive to, or just doesn’t digest well. They might cause gastrointestinal upset, headache, or make you feel a little off balance. (If one more person tells me they completely understand because they are lactose intolerant, I might have to be physically restrained!) Food allergies, on the other hand, are a medical condition in which certain foods trigger an extreme response of the body’s immune system. Ingestion of the problem food can cause hives, swelling, vomiting, difficulty breathing, circulatory collapse, or even death.
While it is possible to develop food allergies at any age, it is rare for older children. Moreover, it would be extremely unlikely that a child would be eating a particular food for years without noticeable consequences and then simply be informed that they are, in fact, allergic. And this much I know for sure—food allergies do not make you fat!! Determining and addressing food allergies is NOT for the purpose of weight loss!
This is, in the history of modern medicine, a fairly new problem. Most adults cannot recall ever being aware of food allergies during their childhood. While it certainly did exist, it was a much more limited problem. Today, the number of children and adults affected by food allergies has grown to epic proportions, and even the medical community is stumped. Our own doctors have readily admitted that they know relatively little about the disease or why it has grown so significantly over the last few decades.
Perhaps this helps explain why so many others out there are not well-educated on the subject, or particularly sensitive to the struggles of families affected by this problem. Maybe this even helps explain some of the inconsistencies in terminology, i.e. allergies vs. intolerance vs. sensitivity. While I am quite sure that Paltrow meant no harm by her use of the term “food allergies”, nor by her advice to others to get tested, I find myself feeling very frustrated by this. I believe that misuse of the term diminishes the importance of medical research, life-saving drug therapies, and sensitivity to those living with the disease. And, to some extent, I think that ill-informed Hollywood celebrities who take their medical advice from well-paid health gurus to the stars, and circulate inaccurate information allow food allergies (among other things) to be written off as some new-age health choice of the rich and famous, rather than the severe medical condition that it truly is.
To be clear, I do believe that, to a large extent, we are what we eat. I believe that we feel and look better when we eat wholesome food that our bodies can consume, digest and turn into useful energy—hopefully while tasting good and bringing us pleasure! I also believe that we all could stand to take a good hard look at what foods we’d be better off without, and should probably eliminate from our diets. (Yes, I, too, should really kick that coffee and chocolate habit!) But, this should not be confused with the life altering and threatening consequences of food allergies that so many individuals struggle with today.
While, with the help of skilled medical professionals and the thoughtful care of teachers, family and friends, Nili has made huge strides forward over the last two years. We have also continued to learn what foods and recipes are nourishing and work well for her—and, yes, Paltrow’s cookbook has been extremely helpful in that regard. But, no, Nili is not on some fancy elimination diet just to feel or look better (she’s pretty darn cute already!). Bottom line: For flexible, healthy, and even kid-friendly recipes? Sure, why not? For pseudo-medical advice? No thank you.