Soy-Free Summer

How many foods can you name that contain soy? I can name thousands–and if you want to become as versed in the versatility of this (evil) little bean as me, then all you’ll need to do is walk up and down the aisles of your local grocery store and read the “nutrition” information on the back of nearly every processed food’s box.

Long before all the “eat real food” hype began permeating the blogosphere (hype that I stand proudly behind and don’t mind promulgating), I was introduced to soy’s insidious ability to hide in nearly all food by accident.

During the summer of 2001, just a few months after I gave up red meat, I found myself in the strange predicament of breaking out in hives on my legs every morning at summer camp. I hadn’t much changed my diet (other than giving up my near-subsistence on Steak-Umms–I just added in more tortellini, like the good little Standard-American-Dieter I was), and I had no indication that any external forces were causing a contact allergy. My mom was baffled too–and also tired of having to make emergency trips to my day camp with bottles of spray-on Benedryl. She has always been acutely tuned to both my and my little sister’s health, so she immediately began searching her inexhaustible mental Rolodex for clues as to why I should be suddenly allergic to nothing at all.

She landed on an allergy test I had when I was a baby. Nothing significant showed up at the time; however the test did expose a “heightened reaction” to soy. Why that should suddenly flare up now, especially when I was eating peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and macaroni for dinner, was a mystery to me, but I decided to roll with it, because I had no other indication of why my legs were breaking out.

That summer, the running joke at summer camp was that I couldn’t eat anything that didn’t have a “soy-free” sticker on the box. The sad part is, in truth, most boxes of food contain soy. Soy in the form of lecithin (an emulsifier), partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat that increases shelf stability), soy protein isolate, or textured vegetable protein (an additive that alternately provides a higher protein/lower fat supplement to food or changes the “mouth feel” of a food product), shows up in EVERYTHING. Seriously, go grab your favorite supermarket food, sit down and read the ingredients, and then let me know what you find. Then do that with everything in your pantry. I rest my case.

So that summer I gave up fruit snacks, M&Ms, processed macaroni and cheese, TV dinners, and nearly everything that previously comprised my daily diet. I also forewent any food that was served to me by friends unless I could read the nutrition information first. I mostly ate peanut butter sandwiches and summer fruits like plums. I started eating salads (dry–no dressing, just in case). I still had tuna, but was suspicious of mayo. I ate grilled chicken and turkey, but not if they had been basted in soy-filled barbecue sauces. Needless to say, I dropped a lot of weight that summer. (I’ll discuss the emotional, mental, and physical ramifications of the soy-free summer in another post.)

At the end of the summer, I was free of hives; however my food choices were not the only change I had made: I had also switched my shampoo brand around the time that the hives stopped. An allergy test before 9th grade started revealed that I was not allergic to soy, but did have a heightened reaction to tree nuts, like hazelnuts. And tree nuts were in my shampoo.

I slowly reintroduced M&Ms to my diet, but the effect of the soy-free summer was to make me more aware of what I was putting into my body–and what food manufacturers were trying to sneak into my body by pretending to actually manufacture food. This period was an intensely stressful one, but important in my understanding of why it’s so important to shop the perimeter of the grocery store…and it led to some of my recent discoveries about why I had to stop being a vegan and why I may have developed such treatment-resistant acne.

But, again, that’s all a story for another day… So I’ll see you then!


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