We have a running joke in my family that, as a kid, I was not allowed to eat anything “fun”. Not true of course, but while other kids got fruit roll ups, Doritos and Gatorade, I got granola bars, water and apples. I was never allowed to drink soda (unless we were at a party and then I was allowed one can), we rarely ever had what I like to call “fun cereal”and my mom and dad went that extra mile to try and buy organic when, let’s face it, organic wasn’t a “thing” yet.
Psst- I also just recently found out that my parents used to brew their own Kambucha… which makes them so epically cool in my mind I can’t even handle it. So ahead of their time that hipster mom and dad of mine.
As a child I vowed that MY kids could eat the “fun cereal”, MY kids could have fruit roll ups and, even though I never developed a taste for it, my kids would be able to have soda if they want it.
Now that I’m a parent myself… not a fruit roll up in sight. We rarely ever have cereal in general and the staple beverage is… water. Whomp whomp. I’ll tell you though, as a family, our food choices haven’t always been top-notch in the health department. However, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the way we eat, because many know that it’s a bit different from what one might consider “conventional” (although with all the different diets, allergies, intolerances, and ethical considerations I’m not convinced “conventional” is actually “conventional” anymore) and so I figured here was as good a place as any to talk about the food at Casa Bean, and the reason it’s a little bit different.
As many of you know a few years back Charlotte developed terrible eczema. It started on the backs of her hands, and then began appearing behind her knees and in the creases of her arms. I remember one night, sitting up with her and watching helplessly as she scratched herself bloody while I held her, crying because I couldn’t get her to stop. No pajamas could keep her from doing it, I tried putting socks on her hands as mittens and she’d just scream and scream and throw them off. She was barely two years old at the time, so commanding her to stop was as useful as a banana slicer.
We were so frustrated. I don’t have any allergies. Neither does Tim, or Sophie. Neither of the girls had ever given any indication that they had food sensitivities when we introduced them to solids so I thought we were in the clear. The whole situation made me feel so helpless, and I hate that feeling… but I didn’t know what to do.
The eczema began to spread from the creases in her arms and legs to the back of her neck, behind her ears, around her wrists and then started forming patches around her lips. She also developed dark puffy circles under her eyes that made her look tired all the time, but she was a champion sleeper by then so we knew it wasn’t sleep-deprivation. Most people told me it was just dry skin. I should just make sure I was putting lotion on her and it would go away. I should make sure I had an humidifier and it would go away. I did these things. I did all of these things and nothing, she continued to scratch and the patches on her skin continued to get worse and worse. She’d even peel off the bandaids I’d put over the worst spots and scratch at them. No matter how short I cut her nails, she always had blood underneath them from scratching at herself. When I spoke to the pediatrician about my concerns for the third or fourth time, she suggested hydrocortisone cream but that ended up making it worse.
It was around this time that I began to read the blog 100 Days of Real Food and if I’ve ever had a “lightbulb moment” this was probably it. She talked about the amazing benefits her family had seen after cutting out processed foods from their diet. People in the comments wrote about similar benefits: more energy, lower blood pressure levels and all around better health results. Many even spoke about how they had unintentionally healed themselves from various ailments… including eczema.
I was intrigued. I decided to do the 100 Days Mini Pledge with our family and was shocked by how difficult it was to stick with one of the steps in the pledge, only buying items with five ingredients or less. It was next-to-impossible to uphold the five ingredient rule when shopping in grocery stores because most boxed and freezer items had way more.
You guys, this is the ingredient list for the whole wheat bread you buy in the bread aisle:
Have any of you ever made whole wheat bread? You need flour, salt, yeast and butter.
Item after item on my list, I’d turn the box over and let out an audible sigh of disappointment and disgust. I was so ignorant. I’d never even noticed.
Inevitably, I cursed out loud and left the grocery store with about a quarter of my actual shopping list completed.
So I did the only thing I could, I started cooking from scratch. I started meal planning. I looked up recipes, I made weekly charts. I used 100 Days of Real Food as my guide. Where did she shop? How did she save money? What were things she bought in box? What did she splurge on? How did she do all of the cooking and still stay sane? I learned how to make homemade bread. I found out I could make graham crackers for the girls that were actually better (and more fun) than the store-bought ones. I got to know the produce section, that some things are only in-season a short time and that’s when they were cheapest (obvious to some… new information to me). I learned that “low-fat” and “non-fat” did not actually actually mean “better for you”. I started to go to the Farmer’s Market every weekend, and not just for the awesome coffee, but for the vegetables, fruits, fresh eggs and meat.
And then one day, I wasn’t thinking about it anymore, I was just doing it. I found my own favorite pantry items. I found my own ways of saving money on items. I found a way to compromise with Tim so he still got his store-bought bagels but I didn’t have to eat them, no did our children. We found our own rhythm and preferences and we made it work. Maybe we couldn’t always afford organic, but we did our best and we were beginning to feel the positive effects. I lost 10 pounds without changing any other part of my life. Tim and I both felt like we had more energy and the girls were behaving better. We weren’t have any sugar-crash tantrums and they were loving being in the kitchen and helping us cook. It had become “normal” so abruptly that we didn’t even notice that things had shifted.
But the eczema had staying power.
Charlotte had cleared up a bit, but minimally and since the rest of us were experiencing such positive results, it left me all the more frustrated and confused. It also gave me more determination that this was not going to be something we had to live with.
My next step was the allergist. They told me she had no allergies, “Ok, could it be minor allergies to something that maybe wouldn’t show up as a big deal on the test?” “No.” Ok.
I went to the dermatologist. They told me it was, in fact, eczema (thank you), and gave me another steroid cream recommendation (prescription this time) and special oil for her but told me not to use it too much because it would thin out the skin and make it more prone to breaking.
Profanity. Profanity. Profanity.
While we did see improvement using these items, as soon as we would stop because it had begun to heal, it would flare up again, but worse. But we couldn’t use the oil everyday because it did, in fact, leave Charlotte’s skin more prone to open up and bleed when she went after her itches.
So I took to the books. I read The Unhealthy Truth by Robyn O’Brien, Dr. Fuhrman’s Eat to Live, and Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma, and Allergies by Dr. Kenneth Bock and Cameron Stauth and decided to try a different approach.
Instead of trying to heal Charlotte with creams and steroids, I wanted to try to heal her body from the inside out. By this point I’d tried everything… bee balms, Aquaphor, Aveeno, rosehip oil… you name it, I slathered it on my girl like her life depended on it. Aquaphor seemed to protect the best, and she stopped itching as much, but I wanted to CURE her. I wanted it gone and I wanted it now.
So we brought her to a Natural Health Clinic, as a last-ditch effort to get professional help. They specialized in finding food sensitivities and using homeopathic methods and chiropractic care to heal. They were amazing.
Let me tell you something, after hearing over and over again that there’s nothing wrong with your child, you just need a humidifier, you just need to be more diligently applying the lotions, it was amazing to have someone say, “Man, this must be so frustrating for you.”
I cried. I cried the ugly cries. I cried the ugly cries all over that Natural Health Clinic and I’m not even sorry. I’m not sorry because I felt like they were actually listening to me, whereas everyone else had shurgged off or blatantly said, “Not possible” when I tried to explain my research into food helping cure skins issues. These people heard me, they listened and they were going to figure this out with me. I’m all about team players and this was my warrior squad. We were going to help Charlotte together.
The appointment itself was… bizarre. Figuring out food sensitivities through kinetic transfer of energy was beyond the level of crunchiness I possessed at the time but I was ready to try anything. Plus, I like Star Wars, and that’s kind of what it sounded like to me.
So I left that day with a bottle of probiotics, Vitamin D, a gigantic list of foods to no longer feed my daughter, and a sense of empowerment that I was finally going to beat this.
And we did.
It wasn’t easy. We started with the elimination diet, cutting out all the food types (and fragrances) that Charlotte reacted to in the health clinic office. We had to cut out all artificial sweeteners and colors, dairy, gluten, corn, eggs, nightshades, and citrus. No more lavender bath bubbles, scented soaps or cheap sunscreen. Trying to go out to eat anywhere was a nightmare. Trying to explain to friends and family over the phone what she could and couldn’t have was a joke. Honestly, if someone had told me what I was telling them. I’d probably think I was crazy too. Basically I just began saying she could eat fruits, vegetables and most meat. Nothing else.
“What about granola bars?”
“What about tomatoes?”
We were lame. And we knew that wherever we went we would have to bring a meal for Charlotte because there’s no way we could expect people to remember everything she couldn’t have. Pizza could no longer be our “easy out” dinner. Charlotte didn’t get to eat birthday cake at parties anymore and I had a number of uncomfortable conversations with strangers who had the audacity to tell me if I had just breastfed my daughter (I did, for a whole year) this wouldn’t be a problem or food sensitivities isn’t a real thing and I should just put more lotion on her. Seriously, people.
But we did it. We held firm and let me tell you something, the moment I grabbed Charlotte’s hand to cross the street and realized she had completely smooth skin, it was all worth it. The morning I woke to realize Charlotte had slept through the night because her scratching hadn’t woken her up was glorious. When I rubbed her back there were no bumps or scabs. I didn’t care how many times I had to tell some well-intentioned teller at the bank that she couldn’t have a lollipop because she’s “allergic” (she’s not, but most people don’t understand that her intolerance is serious enough that she still can’t eat it). I didn’t care because it was all so worth it. Charlotte too, began to understand the correlation between certain foods and her “itchies” and “tummy aches” as she called them. She started asking people when they offered her things if it had sugar in it. She stopped asking for cheese and dairy because she knew it made her sick, and she was perfectly content to have an apple instead of cake, even though it broke my heart a little every time.
Since the initial diagnosis I’ve branched out beyond my whole foods blogs. I still love them, but as we are a grain and dairy free household (for the most part) a majority of their recipes are no longer applicable to us, though I am learning to modify traditional recipes to fit our dietary needs. I’ve found Paleo-focused blogs, blogs about autoimmune diseases and cookbooks that allowed us to go from about 8 staple, Charlotte-approved diet items to a whole slew of various dishes, treats and snacks that we could all eat as a family without worry of flare-ups. I explored vegetarian cookbooks and began cooking with root vegetables I’d never heard of before, grain substitutes, and I learned that there was a significant difference between tree nuts and seeds. I’ve fallen in love with Against All Grain because she has recipes for “breads” and “muffins” that I could bake so when everyone else was eating regular bread, Charlotte could eat some “bread” too. PS…I love carbs. We also started growing some of our own food. Plants kind of hate me, so it’s definitely been an uphill battle on that front but I’m learning, slowly slowly learning.
We’ve recently begun the process of relaxing her diet a bit, as well as ours since we mostly eat the same things she does. We still eat a high concentration of vegetables, greens and legumes as they are the easiest to prepare within the guidelines of our needs but we added eggs, oats, nightshades and citrus back into the rotation. Organic is always our preference, after locally grown, but unfortunately we don’t have the budget for it so we stick to the “dirty dozen” and just make sure the rest of what we buy is as natural as we can get it. We don’t purchase much in the way of boxed items still because most of what you find in them is junk. Sorry, but it’s true. Even the “gluten free” and “dairy free” items are filled with all kinds of unpronounceable ingredients that I think are better, as a whole, to avoid. I also spend at least one day a week spending the majority of my time in the kitchen making certain staples for the rest week such as granola bars and almond milk (from Oh She Glows), zucchini bread (from Against All Grain) and granola (from 100 Days and Oh She Glows). It’s time consuming, but it’s a priority so I make it happen. We even make our own popsicles! This way we’re able to control the ingredients we’re consuming and keep better tabs on the “treats” we get. That goes for the rest of our family too, however we enjoy branching out at times as well. For example we have muffins from our local bakery (the makes everything by hand) once a week when I go to get our standard loaf of bread, even Charlotte gets to pick out a muffin, and we do ice cream treats after soccer once in awhile because hey, we all love ice cream, Charlotte love sherbet. It’s a good balance of health and treats and we’re very happy with how it’s worked out for us. I’m also surprised by the variety of foods we are now eating. I was always afraid that we would be stuck eating the same things over and over again, but that hasn’t been the case.
We’ve also found all kinds of different sunscreens, bug repellents and bath washes that still do their jobs, while being gentle on Charlotte’s skin. Perhaps I’ll make a list of the items we use, but that’s a post for a different day, as this on is already 3000 words long!
I’m sharing this not as a PRINGLES-ARE-GOING-TO-KILL-YOU-type public service announcement, but because since starting down this road we’ve met so many people along the way in the same situation as we were two years ago when we first noticed Charlotte’s eczema. I also have gotten weekly Facebook messages, texts and emails about what we use as a family for Charlotte’s skin, what websites I’ve found helpful as well as just general questions about why we cut out what we did, and why allow the things we do now. I remember how lost and defeated I felt at the beginning of this journey, and I hope I can make it easier for someone else who’s at the start of this road. One of the best things anyone can do is to surround themselves with a supportive team. So here’s me, saying to you, I’m on your team! When people question whether or not you actually NEED to turn down that slice of pizza, or if you’re just bidding for attention, I’m on your team. The food we eat has literally changed our lives and I am so grateful for all the people who did this first, so that I could learn from their wisdom. Their knowledge has been invaluable to us, to my daughter, and to so many other people. Now I know just how much of a difference it made that my parents didn’t rely on the “fun” stuff for our health, and I am so grateful for the foundation they built in me. We’re continuing to learn every day and hope that we continue to maintain Charlotte’s healing as well as the health of our whole family, while still having fun and eating the things we love the most.
We know this way of eating isn’t for everyone, but I can personally attest to how throwing out a lot of the junk food helped us, as a family, feel and live better. So if you’ve ever been curious, try the 100 Day Mini Pledge and see how you feel afterwards. If you’ve been living with eczema and have yet to find something that’s relieved you of symptoms, try an elimination diet. It might just change your life. This was a mind-numbingly slow change for us, but we’ve never looked back.
Psst- if you have a child who has allergies, you should also check out this website. It’s pretty great.
Pssssssst- I am not a professional nutrionist or doctor. In fact, I studied English in college. These are just the experiences my family had and I hope that you find them beneficial but everyone’s experience with eczema or skin-related health conditions is going to unique and what was the answer for us, may not work for you.