What to Expect When You Give Up Corn Derivatives
You Are What You Eat...Maybe
They say you are what you eat. If that's true, most of Northern America is a walking corn cob. These days, corn is in nearly everything you eat. Which causes nightmares for those newly diagnosed with a corn allergy or corn intolerance. Truth be told, it causes nightmares in those of us who have held that diagnosis for several years now, too.
But, corn doesn't have to rule your life whether you're trying to avoid it or not. Just because you've been diagnosed with a corn allergy (or read by Michael Pollan and come to the conclusion that you want to ingest fewer corn derivatives) doesn't mean you have to stop eating. It might feel that way some days, but there are a Omnivore's Dilemmafew options out there.
The reason so many people ingest so many corn derivatives is partly due to our on the go eating habits. Processed foods have a lot of filler ingredients, sweeteners, and preservatives. Most of them are derived from corn in one way or another. So one easy way to give up corn is to cut out the prepackaged goods.
Don't stop reading. Dry your eyes. Pull out the smelling salts. Take a few deep breaths. I'm not actually sending you back in time to the nineteenth century. (No really, I'm not. I don't especially want to make my own everything either.)
I know the idea of living without boxed and frozen meals is overwhelming. But, if you think about it, you don't need those chocolate cookie cream sandwiches or that bottle of soda pop to wash them down with. Living with a corn allergy is about learning to read ingredient lists, cook from scratch, and balance health with actually living. You can do this.
The First Week
The first week without corn derivatives is the hardest. The first day you might think, "I can do this, it's just corn." The second day you notice a few ingredients you missed the day before. The third day, you clean out your cupboards. The fourth, you get hungry.
But there is food. You'll find it easier if you start your journey with a list of potential corn derivatives in your hand, and a list of probably corn free products on your fridge (or in your smart phone, to take to the grocery store with you). Think simple, basic, feel good recipes. Single ingredient spices, farm fresh produce (or frozen, no corn included, vegetables) with plain pasta or unenriched rice. The first week is all about learning how to cook again. It's a skill many people have forgotten, and you'll find it well worth the effort.
Keep in mind that corn derivatives end up in some unexpected places. The first week or two of your corn free lifestyle will probably not be completely corn free. Don't worry about being perfect, just set yourself small goals and stick to them. Start with eliminating obvious sources of corn. Keep a food diary, which will help you pinpoint problematic foods (Either ones that have hidden corn derivatives or ones that you might have a slight intolerance to but haven't been able to trace while consistently reacting to other items in your diet) If you slip up, don't beat yourself up. Your immune system does a pretty good job as it is! Just take a moment to learn from your mistake, and figure out how to avoid that pitfall in the future. Then move forward.
The Stages of Grief
Although the stages of grief were originally identified as the process moved through after a catastrophic loss, such as of a loved one, many people with food allergies find they go through a similar process to some extent. There are five official stages:
- Denial and/or isolation: denying the allergy, or isolating in anticipation of a reaction or a perceived need to be isolated from society. Sometimes both.
- Anger: Frustration with your body or with the allergy, sometimes with the allergen itself. Corn isn't evil, but during the anger phase it's tempting to think of it that way.
- Bargaining: In this phase, we try to come up with cures, or conditions under which it might be okay to consume the allergen. If we get through a week without corn, we'll binge on the weekend. If we can give it up for a year, maybe we'll be cured. Sometimes there is reflection on the past. If we hadn't had an entire bag of popcorn when we were ten, we never would have developed this allergy...It's not true, and if it were, there's nothing that can be done now. But this is the brain trying to help us make sense of the new restriction.
- Depression: Changing a lifestyle is difficult and can be depressing. It's easy to feel isolated (Especially during the grieving process, if isolating ourselves was part of step one) Isolation, change and loss can all lead to depression.
- Acceptance and Hope: Finally, there is acceptance that our lives have changed and hope that things will be better. Hope is often accompanied by the first successful batch of corn free cookies, or a successful social outing.
Allergy sufferers report moving through the stages of grief multiple times in their lifetime. While you can't avoid the process, recognizing that a change in diet and lifestyle is momentous and can trigger a true grieving process is important and helps one to deal with each of the overwhelming emotions that might accompany some of the steps. You can expect to re experience the stages of grief during setbacks or emotional times, like around the holidays.
The First Month
Eventually, you're going to get hungry, and despite the overflowing produce drawers, you're going to want to eat out. While some people have success eating out at small, locally owned restaurants where food is prepared fresh in the kitchen and the chef knows exactly what's in every meal (from sauce to breadsticks), others find that it's nearly impossible to dine without incident. The temptation usually occurs during the first month or so of your corn free lifestyle. If you're dedicated, you'll find the calling around process tedious at best but if you find a place that you can trust it's worth the effort.
If you don't eat out the first month, chances are you'll stop missing it or chicken out in the future. Personally, I don't miss it. But I ate out the first month and got 'poisoned'. It was enough to turn me off of restaurant food indefinitely. If you do eat out, look for simple, basic dishes. Baked potatoes. Plain meats. Steamed vegetables. Remember that the more ingredients a dish has, the more likely corn is to slip through your radar.
The first month your sweet tooth will kick in. You'll want to find some safe baking ingredients and a few simple, fool proof recipes as soon as possible. You may also start to miss 'normal' foods, especially when you are running late one night or leave your lunch bag at home.
At some point during the first month you'll probably go through the grieving process (See sidebar). I know that sounds silly, but eliminating corn from your diet is a huge dietary and lifestyle change. It isn't as simple as choosing iced tea instead of milk and holding the cheese (Not to minimize the impact of a dairy allergy). Avoiding corn can feel at times like it's taking over your life.
As easy as it is to fall into the 'poor me' trap, try not to. Instead, let yourself be empowered. By recognizing a food intolerance you are able to take control of your symptoms. So, instead of letting yourself fall into the doldrums when your boss brings donuts to work and you have to pass, tell yourself that you are lucky you know what to avoid. After all, prior to diagnosis, you might have enjoyed the taste of that cakey glazed donut, but you also would have been miserable by lunch time and hoping to check out early by the end of the day. By knowing what to avoid to stay healthy, you are able to function better. And that means that while your taste buds might be disappointed, overall you'll enjoy your day much better.
If You Do Give In...
There will be days when you feel great and talk yourself into just a bite of birthday cake or a teeny, tiny donut, or a sliver of pizza. You probably won't feel so great afterwards. We've all been there, we've all challenged the diagnosis and most of us have lived to bemoan the story. That's how you learn how vigilant you need to be, and whether or not you can 'cheat' on this new diet. (Hint: Most people can't cheat very much or often, if at all) Forgive yourself, deal with the symptoms the best you can, and move on. It's about all you can do.
If your symptoms are anaphylactic, you'll need to carry an epi pen at all times. Discuss when to use it, and what else to do during a reaction, with your doctor.
The First Year
Once you learn a few quick and easy recipes, and get a lunch routine down, corn free cooking won't feel nearly as intimidating as you first thought. That is, until the holidays roll around. Holidays are all about food. They're supposed to be about family, but really, in the end, the things that bring out memories associated with holidays tend to be food related. Candy corn, pumpkin pie, cinnamon cookies, fried latkes, candy canes...And then there are the less intense, but no less important, holidays that bring on cravings for candy covered chocolate or jellybeans.
The first year without corn is full of ups and downs. Expect to revisit the grieving process several times throughout the first year. You'll grieve for an old lifestyle, for food you miss, and for the convenience and social camaraderie of sharing meals and treats. But you'll also come to experience a deeper understanding of food ingredients, and a deeper appreciation for real food (basic ingredients, produce, whole grains). I won't lie. You'll always miss certain iconic candies. But you'll also learn to go beyond the food,