Google+ Allergy-Free Vintage Cookery: Why do we crave the foods we are allergic to?


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why do we crave the foods we are allergic to?

Merlin, Arlene and Elliott, three of the six Barnett children, 1944

One of the most frustrating aspects of food allergy is that many of us begin to crave the very foods we are allergic to.  One would think that ingesting a substance that the body views as a poison would produce such unpleasant symptoms that we'd go out of our way to avoid it, but unfortunately this is often not the case.

According to a leading allergy specialist, "frequent contact with allergenic foods triggers a rise in the brain opioid enkephalin. The enkephalin is a narcotic produced by the body that is as addictive as externally supplied narcotics."  (

Apparently, our first exposures to allergens result in acute unpleasant reactions (most of which occur when we are very young), but if the food is constantly ingested, the body begins to build up defenses that mask the original symptoms.  Addiction follows, as continuous exposure causes the body to "need" the offending substance in order to prevent withdrawal symptoms.  

It is only much later that unpleasant symptoms override the addictive high we feel when we eat allergenic foods.  Long-term exposure causes a number of serious illnesses, including obesity, migraines, heart disease and diabetes.  

How can we possibly become addicted to something our body tries to eradicate?  It's a lot like becoming addicted to cigarettes.  The first puffs taste terrible and make us feel sick, but we force ourselves to continue (for whatever reason), and eventually we don't hate smoking so much.  Soon, we are craving cigarettes and can't stop smoking them, even though they are doing terrible things to our bodies.  We must have a cigarette to feel good, and feel terrible when we are denied our nicotine. 

Eating allergenic foods can actually cause a euphoric feeling, akin to the high one would receive from narcotic drugs.  Our bodies are trying to adapt to these toxic substances, but in doing so they are putting us in more danger by creating a cycle of addiction.  We only feel good when we are constantly ingesting poisonous substances... it certainly makes it hard to stop eating allergens.  One allergy website notes, "Ideally, one should feel no better or worse after eating a specific food.  If you do, then suspect a food sensitivity." (

As a child, I disliked milk, cheese and eggs intensely.  No one knew it, but I was allergic to both dairy and eggs.  Unfortunately, the popular wisdom of the day encouraged parents to feed their children these items daily for optimal health.  So, as many young children do, I sat at the dinner table gulping down foods I couldn't stand, grimacing all the way.  

Eventually, I started to choose to eat dairy and eggs, just so I could fit in with other people... pizza parties, cocktail parties with cheese and crackers, breakfast buffets with omelettes... it seemed as though I couldn't join into any social activities without eating these items.  I was sort of proud of myself for expanding my palate and eating more "grown-up" dishes.  I never realized that my body had been trying to tell me to avoid dairy and eggs.

When my infant son was diagnosed with dairy and egg allergies, I eliminated both of these from my diet while he was nursing.  I noticed a number of odd symptoms disappeared at this time, but I didn't really suspect an allergy in myself.  When my food restrictions were lifted, I went back to eating my "favorite foods," which by now included dairy and eggs at the top of the list.  I often found myself craving cheese and quiche-like casseroles in times of stress, and as soon as I ate them I felt wonderful.  I chalked up my subsequent bouts with irritability, moodiness, fatigue and depression to living with a food allergic baby who hardly slept, cried constantly, and was a living diarrhea machine.  I was caught in a vicious cycle.  

After six years of feeling miserable (yes, it takes me a while to get around to taking care of myself), I finally had my food allergies tested, and am now trying to follow an allergen-free diet.  It's not easy.  I still crave cheese, I still find eating non-allergenic foods boring because they don't give me the rush that my allergenic foods do, I still struggle every time I go out to stay away from my favorite foods. 

My allergist suggested I follow an elimination diet for three months, then try re-introducing foods one at a time to see if the extended break allowed my body to become less sensitive to some of the allergens.  Nope.  I had a *spectacular* meal last weekend at a restaurant -- Red Robin's new Octoberfest burger.  Pretzel bun, burger, caramelized onions, spicy mustard, thin-sliced ham -- with a Sam Adams Cherry Wheat, I was in heaven.  For a while.  Then life started to suck.  

I am not supposed to eat gluten, ground beef, onions, vinegar (in the mustard) or cured meats (the ham)... or alcohol.  That's every single thing on my plate that night.  What was I thinking?  I think I was having a severe case of wishful thinking, or possibly abject denial.  I *wanted* that burger more than I wanted anything else.  I *needed* to eat that burger (there was a picture of it on the table) or else I would not be happy.  Ever.  I convinced myself that I could have all this stuff once and it wouldn't be a big deal.  

Not the case.  I won't get into all the gory details, but my worst symptoms came back with a vengeance, and have lasted for a good week.  I knew better, but I fell off the wagon.  Time to climb back on and try, try again.  It's an addiction, so I shouldn't beat myself up, but I do feel as though I should be able to control my food intake more carefully.  Has anyone else experienced the challenge of food addiction?  What do you do when you *must* have that food item that you know will make you feel good now but bad later?  

Shared with Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop and Gluten Free Wednesday at the Gluten Free Homemaker and Fat Tuesday at The Real Food Forager and Pennywise Platter at the Nourishing Gourmet.


  1. Yearning for what we cannot/should not have ~ the human condition, right?


  2. This describes me perfectly, and makes a lot of sense. I'm currently struggling with getting back off of gluten and dairy, and limiting sugar. I feel so weak. :(

  3. @ Cindy ~ (sigh) The human condition is a real bummer.

    @ Nancy ~ Thanks so much for sharing!

    @ Audra Marie ~ I know what you mean. I was so mad at myself for continuing to eat stuff I shouldn't all week after my first lapse.

  4. wow...this is really a great post. I have early pre-diabeties which was diagnosed about 5 years ago when I was 47. I never thought of connecting allergies to possibly what is bringing this on. I am beginning to wonder if Carbs or gluten may be my trigger. You have given me much food for thought and I may do some more investigating. I do know when I follow a diet that has less *breads* in it I feel better.
    Thanks for posting this!

  5. My daughter definitely craved the foods she was/is allergic to, especially wheat and dairy. She is on the GAPS diet now to reverse those allergies (there are more) and so far has been able to re-introduce aged cheeses and yogurt with no problem! Gut and Psychology Syndrome (the book that explains GAPS) explains how food allergies/intolerances develop and how they can be reversed. Here's a link to a fascinating article written by the same author on the subject:

  6. @ Lorena ~ It's amazing how so many seemingly unrelated things are actually connected! I hope you are able to zero in on whatever it is that is upsetting your system.

    @ Jill ~ Thanks for the link... I've been hearing a lot about GAPS and am looking forward to learning more.

  7. i'm kinda curious about what kinda gory details you omitted...

  8. I have just been given the link to this post and oh, how I can relate!!!
    I was sick for well over 10 years - not knowing what was wrong. I finally came across some information that led to me doing the elimination diet (mine lasted 9 months!!). I now know my intolerances and have a bumpy path with good and bad bouts.
    I love this post and how you have explained the reason we crave what is hurting us so bad.
    Thank you!

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