Moving in with someone usually reveals surprises. I was taken aback that my husband, Scott, has never, to his recollection, cut his toenails. ("They just keep themselves short.") He insisted that I should have disclosed my bizarre habit of having a glass of milk with dinner — anything from Szechuan string beans to spaghetti marinara — before we married.
I started seeing a nutritionist late last year, with the goals of getting a handle on my oscillating blood sugar and losing the 15 or 20 extra pounds that show up when you have a desk job in your 30s. I've been a vegetarian or pescetarian (the fancy word for a vegetarian who cheats with fish) since my teens and wanted professional help to revamp my diet.
I soon found that working with a nutritionist can be like seeing a therapist: You come in with a focus on one issue, but the treatment can take a path that you never anticipated. We spent a few productive months improving my diet by incorporating protein-packed snacks and more fruits and vegetables. Then it was time to move on to the smaller complaints that could be food-related. I had long ago accepted that my generally happy and healthy life would be occasionally marred by bouts of itchy, painful eczema, semiannual sinus colds, and frequent chest congestion. However, my nutritionist thought a dairy allergy could be the culprit. According to one of the books that she recommended, there are two reliable ways to diagnose food allergies. An allergist can perform a blood test, or you can avoid the suspected food for at least two weeks, then reintroduce it and monitor your heart rate and other reactions.
I really, really hate having blood drawn.
I reminded myself of this while I skipped most of the aisles in the grocery store and headed for the small, dusty corner containing gluten-free products. In addition to avoiding milk, I would be cutting out wheat, knocking out two of the most common food allergens. If I were genuinely allergic, I could expect to feel like a million bucks at the start of the diet, and additionally drop up to 10 pounds. My menu included vegetable stir-fries with rice, lentil soup, Mexican salads and breaded — oops, I mean broiled — fish with potatoes and broccoli. I picked up wheat-free pasta, and, with reluctance, cookies that advertised their lack of gluten, refined sugar and dairy.
Although I spent more time than usual cooking, things went pretty smoothly for the first week. I decided my best approach at work was to be a recluse. I turned down my boss' invitation to go for pizza and immediately deleted e-mails informing me of baked goods at the front desk. Instead, I ate my lunch of lentil salad and a sad little cookie with the texture of a Cheeto.
The cracks began to show the first weekend, when Scott and I went to a Mexican restaurant. The meat-free dishes were either wrapped in a flour tortilla or covered in cheese, so I settled on a piece of grilled fish with sides of succotash and a baked potato. The succotash arrived with unexpected bacon, and the salsa topping the fish had no flavor. I found myself on the verge of tears.
By the middle of the second week, I noticed that my weight was basically unchanged and so was my eczema. Scott, though, was struck by the change in my voice, which he said had previously sounded congested, and my extremely clear skin.
On the fourteenth day, I strapped on my heart-rate monitor and devoured a piece of fresh, chewy wheat bread. I braced myself for a change in my heart rate or digestive trouble. Nothing unusual happened, and I congratulated my body. When I reintroduced milk two days later, I could feel myself immediately becoming congested, but that was the only noticeable symptom. The verdict: a moderate intolerance to milk but no true food allergies.
My own path to better health is more like a rural road than a superhighway. Some dietary or exercise changes haven't made any difference. Others have yielded incremental changes rather than dramatic, infomercial-style results. However, I'm beginning to enjoy the inconsistent but measurable progress. One week later, I've severed my relationship with Starbucks and relegated cheese to an occasional condiment. My skin and voice are still clear. And I've switched to almond milk with dinner.