Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Food Allergies - The Fiction Factor

Have you noticed how every fourth person you speak to has suddenly developed allergies to wheat, dairy products, chocolate, tea or coffee? Is this really possible? Of course it isn’t! While there are those with serious and life-threatening allergies to some foods, and many more with known food intolerance, food allergy has become yet another shelter for budding anorexics.

The number of practitioners offering allergy testing has exploded like mushrooms in a field on an autumn morning. The vast majority have few, if any, recognisable qualifications or adequate clinical training. Their methods vary from hair analysis and swinging pendulums to worthless computer tests and highly questionable blood analyses. But to someone trying to hide their eating disorder, a computer print-out listing 27 foods they shouldn’t eat is manna from heaven - though that’s probably on the list, too.

No-one in their right mind would ask the check-out person in the supermarket to give an opinion on the brakes of their car - especially without even looking at it - yet they trust someone with a computer in a health store to test them for allergies, prescribe a diet and persuade them to buy a bagful of expensive special foods and supplements.

Once they’ve been ’diagnosed’ in this way, it’s extremely hard to persuade these hapless victims that they haven’t found the Holy Grail and the path to eternal health and salvation. They sit in my surgery complaining of exhaustion, hair loss, breaking nails, poor concentration and overall malaise. It’s sometimes impossible to convince them that they don’t have allergies and that all they need is to get back to a healthy, balanced diet.

All this, despite the fact that some have had their entire ’diagnosis’ and ’treatment plan’ through the post or over the telephone - yes, there are practitioners who reach decisions by voice diagnosis.

Having food allergies, especially if you have a computer print-out to prove it, is an even more acceptable alibi for the budding anorexic. They have a seemingly legitimate reason for reducing their diet to boiled water, the odd pear and an occasional tiny portion of organic lamb. Not surprisingly their weight plummets.

Certainly there are excellent vegetarians who follow the best of diets and there are many people with food allergies and intolerances who still manage to overcome this difficult problem and eat healthily. But the evidence I see in my consulting room, the hundreds of letters I received each month and the many listeners who called my radio programme filled me with alarm. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that young women, and they are mostly women, have found these two new ways to cover up their eating disorders by making their problems appear respectable.

Case History

At 42 Stephanie had been a vegetarian for 15 years. She wrote to me because she wasn’t feeling too good and wanted some advice. When I spoke to her I quickly found out why.

Her diet was really appalling and vegetarians need to learn about nutrition. She eats the same foods constantly. Porridge with sugar and five Ryvitas every day; and each week six helpings of baked beans on white buttered toast; six small, frozen Yorkshire puddings; two eggs; three portions of pasta with root vegetables and one cheese and vegetable pie. She buys ten assorted milk chocolate bars a week and 15 pick and mix bags of chocolates. Hardly starvation rations but at 5 foot and half an inch, and 7 stone 12 lbs, she was not much above her minimum healthy weight.

“I was fine for a few years,” says Steph, “But after about 8 years my hair started thinning. It had been a difficult time, my sister died then my cat, and then Dad got seriously ill.

I’m really worried about my hair - you can see the scalp now - and the exhaustion. My skin’s got very dry and on my hands it’s thick and scaly with brittle nails. I don’t know if it’s the stress or my diet - I worry about all the chocolate I eat.”

The stress doesn’t help but she shouldn’t worry about the chocolate; it’s probably the only thing that keeps her going. The real problem is the rest of her diet.

She gets twice as much saturated fat and only half as much fibre as she needs, she’s very short of iron, selenium and vitamin C and gets virtually no vitamin D. The skin problems are caused by lack of beta carotene and vitamin A, and it’s the protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins in the chocolate that save her from total disaster.

Though Stephanie has strange eating habits she doesn’t have an eating disorder. Her barely adequate calorie consumption and her serious deficiency in many essential nutrients show how easy it would be for a closet anorexic to hide behind the façade of vegetarianism.


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