Natalie is Soy-Free: What is a food sensitivity?

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Grocery shopping, and grocery stores in general, become somewhat of a nightmare while dealing with a food-related limitation.


Sometimes, stomach aches happen.

Sometimes it is clear where they came from; a certain type of food, a bad meal, stress, a digestive disorder of some kind.

And then other times, it just is a permanent fixture, part of a daily routine, an expected friend to wake up to and fall asleep with. It is not clear where it came from and why it is there and refuses to go away, making it difficult to treat.

I was unfortunately and unwillingly gifted with the second kind. It had reached a point where I assumed pain came along with eating. It felt like everything that put into my system caused a problem; I was cramped, bloated and suffering. Finally, in the summer of 2018, I said enough was enough and decided to do something about it by talking to a doctor.

From there, two things happened: I was diagnosed with a digestive disorder related to stress, which was a fairly obvious given, but I also found out something else that I would come to find more distressing than my chronic health condition: a sensitivity to soy.

There was a lot to unpack in that discovery. Firstly, I did not even know I had been consuming soy on a regular basis. It had only become apparent to me when I tried vegan, soy-based protein, like Gardein chick’n, which brought my worst bout of pain yet. I was frustrated, but not fully on-board with blaming soy until I had another poor reaction, and then another. All of them traced back to some variation of soy, like soy sauce, soy lecithin or soybean oil. These are all things that I had, unfortunately, been eating a lot of because they are in many more foods and ingredients than most people assume: heavily processed foods like Pop-Tarts and Oreos, most pre-prepared foods, most vegetable oils, most cooking sprays, a lot of restaurant foods and the list goes on.

Confirmation came when I completely cut out soy and found, with absolute certainty, I had found the solution to my problem.

Secondly, I knew I did not have an allergy; I was not experiencing tingling lips, trouble swallowing, hives or anaphylaxis. But I did not understand how something that was so blatantly not a food allergy could still be so vexing.

As many would, I started doing research which led down the rabbit hole of food allergies versus intolerances. I was familiar with the symptoms of food intolerance but quickly realized I did not know as much as I thought since I believed it could only happen with lactose. My research also introduced me to an entirely new category: food sensitivities.

This led me to ask out loud, my voice tinged with exasperation: “What the f—k is a food sensitivity?”

Simplified, and from the position of my non-science background, food sensitivities and food intolerances are pretty similar. As explained by Harvard Medical School, they are not life-threatening, like allergies can be and usually are, and they typically just lead to digestive issues. The main difference is that food intolerances are related to enzymes, whereas sensitivities are merely believed to be an “adverse response.”

These adverse responses are not just related to the gastrointestinal system; they are also believed to bring on fatigue, migraines, mood swings, trouble sleeping and even acne.

Researchers believe that food sensitivities become more common as we age and the best way, and currently the only truly fool-proof way, to test for them is through elimination techniques. This is the process of removing foods from a person’s diet that seem to trigger a negative response and, basically, just wait to see what happens.

What makes food sensitivities both really interesting and really difficult to spot is that they can onset at any point in life, so just because a food was fine for someone three months earlier does not mean it will remain that way. This does not mean everyone needs to live in a constant state of fear that they will suddenly not be able to enjoy their favorite foods, but it could explain any sudden and stubborn stomach issues.

This does mean, however, that food sensitivities are hard to live with. The list of foods that I cannot eat is substantially longer than the foods that I can eat, which sounds like an exaggeration until scanning the ingredients of food items in an average pantry or grocery store. I cannot eat out at most restaurants with a guarantee I will not consume soy, and I have to eat ‘weird’ allergy-friendly foods and almost exclusively home-cooked meals. I had to cut out most of the core foods I used to eat, and going out with friends or on date nights are notably trickier because of this.

But even with all these limitations and lifestyle changes, I refuse to give in and spend my time labeling food as public enemy number one. Instead, I am redirecting that energy into making eating easier for me, whether it be through tracking down more soy-free foods or advocating for myself and other folks facing the same challenges.

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    I have/am going through the exact same thing. Your story described mine.

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