Sometimes I hate eating in public – especially group meals, or at someone else’s house, when they’ve cooked. I have a very long and very strange list of things I shouldn’t eat, which come across as me being very picky. I hate that. But when someone asks me “so what exactly is it that you can’t eat?” I want to crawl under a table. It’s so complicated to explain. Usually I’m quite dismissive. I say something like “well, I basically can’t eat anything healthy” or “I can’t eat fruit. Or most vegetables. Or seasonings.” Which both sound like jokes, and they sort of are – but both answers are all too close to the truth.
I have a very low tolerance for salicylic acid, a naturally occurring food acid. It’s not an allergy (and as such can’t be easily tested for) – my body just doesn’t handle it well. The more I have in my system, the more physical issues I have. Headaches, stomach issues, rashes/itchy skin, joint swelling/pain, sinus congestion, tinnitus, fatigue – all sorts of things. Salicylate sensitivity has also been linked to depression and sleep disruption, which is interesting given my history with both, but I haven’t seen a clear link in myself so far. When I cut my salicylate intake I am more well overall, physically speaking. The difference it makes is stunning to me.
While few people are aware of salicylic sensitivty, tests have shown a significant number of adults with asthma or migraines show a reaction to salicylates, whether they realise it or not. (I had asthma as a child and have had migraines since I was 8). The website “fed up” has a good overall explanation of salicylate sensitivity.
Naturally speaking, salicylic acid is related to plant growth hormones – which is why my diet limits fruits, vegetables and herbs. Medicinally, it is a fever/pain reducer, particularly as aspirin, and its acidic nature means it’s also used in cleansers and medicinal abrasives, like acne and wart treatments. It’s a common ingredient in gel-based cleansers particularly, but is found in most cleansers, astrigents (toners), lotions and other cosmetic solutions. This means that when I got serious about reducing my salicylate intake I had to get rid of most of the bottles in my bathroom! I now use a lot of products from Cleure, an American company that produces hypoallergic products free of salicylates (among other allergens). The presence of salicylic acid in so many herbs means I also have to be very careful with herbal remedies and even some vitamins – evening primrose oil, for example, is high in salicylates.
Foods that are low in salicylic acid are so few and far between that a salicylate-free diet is not really possible, and not recommended. The idea is to limit salicylates as much as possible, then slowly add just a little; once a balance is found where symptoms are no longer occuring, slowly increase the amount of salicylates – and so on.
One of the hardest things for me in doing this is that lists of what contains salicylic acid seem to differ from source to source. For example, I mostly follow the lists from salicylatesensitivity.com but while it lists cauliflower as low in salicylates I have seen it listed moderate-high elsewhere. Also, I am yet to see many common Asian vegetables and sauces on these kinds of lists. Going by these charts, I try to get the bulk of my dietary intake from “negligible” and “low” sources, with a little from the “moderate” category, then (as much as possible) avoid the “high” and “very high” categories altogether. In addition, I also have to avoid oats, caramel color (#150 – which for me basically means no cola drinks at all), and onion (unless it is very finely chopped and/or very well cooked).
If this all sounds annoying, and difficult – good! It is. I’ve taken to cooking mostly vegan food at home – to help balance the fact that meat, carbs and dairy (and desserts) are often the only safe options for me when eating out. My core ingredients are lentils, green beans, potatoes, celery, cabbage, bean shoots, garlic, sunflower oil, soy sauce, and salt (with some eggs, meat, dairy, rice, and wheat products now and then). To help explain how insane this is to follow well, I’m going to make a list below of everything I try to avoid entirely (this is not even counting the “moderate” section).
So yes, it’s a pain, but it makes me feel healthy – which is a huge thing. I’ve dealt with chronic pain my whole life – constant headaches, joint pain, tendinitis… all sorts of things. Keeping to a low salicylic diet makes a huge difference – to the point that for the first time in my life I rarely carry painkillers with me. I would rather know, and have the option to exert some control over my physical ailments, than be in constant pain. Knowing means I can also choose what to cheat on – by keeping my general salicylate intake low, I can have something from the high lists now and then without much of a reaction.
For me, this is literally life changing. So, I’m sorry if I don’t like your choice of restaurant, or can’t eat everything you serve me. I’m sure it’s delicious, but I’ve finally decided I would rather be seen as an annoyingly picky eater than be in pain.
Foods and condiments I avoid:
- Most fruit incl. all jam, dried fruit, fruit juices and fruit flavoured juices/sweets (apple, apricot, avocado, all berries, cantaloupe, cherries, currants, dates, grapes, grapefruit, guava, kiwi, lychee, mandarin, melons, nectarine, onion, orange, peach, pineapple, plum, prune, pumpkin, raisin, rockmelon, sugar banana, sultana, tangelo, tangerine, watermelon)
- Selected vegetables, incl. all vegetable juices (alfalfa sprouts, artichoke, bell peppers, broad bean, broccoli, capsicum, chilis, cucumber, eggplant, okra, olives, peppers, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato, tomato and tomato products, watercress, zucchini)
- Most herbs (basil, bay leaf, coriander, dill, mint, mixed herbs, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme)
- Most spices (aniseed, black pepper, caraway, cardamon, cayenne, celery powder, chili, cinnamon, cloves, cumin curry, fenugreek, garam masala, ginger, nutmeg, paprika, turmeric, white pepper)
- Most nuts (almond, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachio, walnut)
- Corn products (corn syrup, cornmeal, maize, polenta, popcorn, popping corn)
- Breakfast cereals that include fruit, nuts, honey, coconut, oats, or corn (so, pretty much all of them)
- Coffee and tea
- Oils (coconut, copha, olive, sesame, walnut)
- Pickles (and anything pickled) including gherkins
- Processed meats (incl. frankfurters, hotdogs, lunch meats, salami, sausages)
- Sauces (fish paste, gravy from powder, ketchup, meat pastes, mustard, stock cubes, tabasco, tomato sauces, worcestershire)
- Selected sweets (gum, honey, licorice, mint, peppermint, wintergreen)
- Vegemite (and Marmite etc.)
- Vinegars (cider, white, wine)