On one of my many trips to the neighborhood health clinic, driven to its basement exam rooms by the unexplained, as-yet-undiagnosed compulsive vomiting that had taken over my life, I was given a piece of friendly advice by the young intern who listened to my catalog of symptoms and complaints. “Maybe you should try not eating dairy.”
I wanted to scream at her. Did she really think that these extreme, peculiar symptoms were because my tummy didn’t like ice cream? A few months later I would learn what was causing the digestive trouble – Crohn’s disease – and I haven’t detected that dairy has anything to do with my symptoms.
A few months ago my mother sent me an article about a woman whose Ulcerative Colitis was prompted to flare by the common additive carrageenan. There have been studies indicating that this seaweed extract, in the form that is used as an emulsifier in creamy foods, can prompt inflammation in animals. Of course, it has its defenders, including carrageenan harvesters/processers, and corporations that include it in their food.
I read the article, thought “I should probably avoid that” and didn’t give it much more thought. Occasionally I’d read labels on almond milk and buy the ones that didn’t have carrageenan. But I’ve never been convinced that my symptoms have as easy an answer as eliminating a particular food.
Last week while visiting my parents I didn’t feel well, and I kept walking by a note in my father’s handwriting which he must have written down after reading that same article. On the back of an old business card it simply read “CARRAGEENAN” in all caps.
So I thought, why not cut it out, how hard could it be?
Things came to a head a few days later when I read the ingredients list our tube of toothpaste. Carrageenan. Crap.
Later that day on a trip to get frozen yogurt I read the ingredients lists post on the wall. All of the frozen yogurts had carrageenan. My only option was raspberry lime sorbet. I don’t even like sorbet. I ate a dollop and pouted the whole time, aware of how absurd I looked.
The next day while I was out for the first good run I’d had in weeks, I realized what it was that made me want to flip over the toppings bar at the frozen yogurt place. It wasn’t about sorbet, it was about control, or lack thereof. It was about feeling betrayed by a world that I had always assumed would keep me healthy. It was about knowing the world is full of things that can make us sick, and that there is very little we can do about it.
I kept running, faster and faster, because I felt good that day. I decided that I could handle the inconvenience of reading labels even more closely than I already do. Each footfall on the hot summer pavement brought me a little bit farther from my blissful ignorance, and a little bit closer to the new way of life that I hope can keep me healthy.