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Not long ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Brown through social media. Yes, Jim Brown is his real name. About two years ago, he posted something about being diagnosed with a beef allergy. The symptoms had developed quickly during the previous year and had been steadilydestroying his health. I was so intrigued that I had to ask him how it all developed. He told me about his experience and has permitted me to publish his name and story in the hope that it may help someone else. Thank you, Jim, for so generously sharing your “adventure.”
My name is Jim Brown. I live with my wife Laura in a house on five acres in a small town just north of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Compared to many other men my age (I am 60 years old now), I have always been in pretty good shape. To be sure, I did have the beginnings of Type II diabetes and a slight issue with gout that started about five years ago. And I am severelyallergic to bee, wasp, and fire ant venom, but that’s it. Other than that, I have always had lots of energy, no major diagnoses, and no daily medications. I never had to worry about what I ate or how much exercise I got.So it was a big surprise when, suddenly, in December 2017, my health started to decline dramatically. I was 57 at the time. My health went from robust to failing within four months. It began with a flu of some kind and got worse after a tick bite in the Spring of 2018. By April, I experienced periodic atrial fibrillation, repeated gout flare-ups, extreme ongoing fatigue,shortness of breath, and persistent burning muscle pain with the slightest physical exertion. I spent months going back and forth to our local Emergency Department, walk-in clinic, and medical specialists with my peculiar set of symptoms. All the while, my body felt as though itwas consuming itself from the inside out. At the time, I didn’t think the tick bite or the fact that I was eating a lot of animal products was important. However, after nearly a year of wondering if I was ever going to recover, I was diagnosed with Alfa-gal allergy. The doctor said that meant I amallergic to beef. Right then, it was crystal clear that the combination of the tick bite and the animal products formed the tipping point for my health.
Most people have never even heard of Alfa-gal. So here is a little background information from the CDC website https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/alpha-gal/index.html:Alpha-gal (galactose-α-1,3-galactose) is a sugar molecule found in most mammals (except in people, apes, and monkeys). Alpha-gal can be found in products made from mammals (including food, some medications, cosmetics, vaccines, gelatin, and milk products). Alpha-gal has also beenfound in some types of ticks. Alpha-gal allergy is an allergy to the alpha-gal sugar molecule.Allergic reactions typically occur after people eat meat from mammals that have alpha-gal or are exposed to products made from mammals. The allergy is also associated with, and can be triggered by, tick bites. These ticks are more common in the southeastern United States.
Based on that explanation, I now know the tick bite, and my diet caused the sudden change in my physical condition. Armed with my new diagnosis and a commitment to feel like my old self, on April 25, 2019, I cut beef out of my diet. Within days, I noticed some improvement, but my energy and stamina still waxed and waned daily. By the beginning of May 2019, I was starting tosee that this change in food choices was more than just a thought. It would take some planning. I was so used to eating whatever I wanted, no matter how it was prepared. It started to dawn on me that I had to revise my view of food if I was going to regain my health long term.
On May 5, Meryl (aka the Pretty Wild Vegan) suggested that I stop consuming all milk, yogurt, ice cream, and cheese onthe basis that they were cow-derived products and likely have a lot of the same sugars. I did. After ten days without beef and two days without dairy, I could feel my body starting to relax. May 7 was the first day in almost a year that I didn’t feel like my body was eating itself from theinside out.
When I went back to the allergist on May 8, 2019, he told me he couldn’t test for any other food allergies. He said he had no new information for me. He also said I should come back in three months. Thankfully, I was already feeling better, and I had recaptured enough of my energy tofeel frustrated with the medical professionals handling my case. Since they seemed to have reached the end of their expertise on the subject, I decided to use an elimination diet to help determine if there were other allergies I should know about.
On May 9, 2019, at age 59, I was starting to feel quite a bit better because of removing all animal products from my diet. So, my wife and I decided to go to a local Japanese steakhouse for dinner to celebrate before I started the elimination diet. Hindsight being perfect, I probably could havethought that through a little better. (Note to self: “Steakhouse”= BIG RED FLAG)
I ordered carefully. I told the waiter about the beef allergy. I had fried rice, vegetables, salmon, a beer, and some Saki. The following day, it hit me: I was short of breath, and the fatigue returned. I checked my blood pressure. It was wasn’t bad: only slightly elevated at 139/88 and a heartbeatof 68 beats a minute. Nevertheless, I realized managing what I eat is crucial for me. I had to learn to make time to grocery shop, prep, and cook food that I know is safe for me to eat.
Looking back, it is clear that up until I developed the alpha-gal allergy, I had an easy relationship with food. My wife and I have busy schedules, so we eat out often. Tennessee is one of the jewels in the American Barbecue Belt, and beef is proudly featured on any menu. I also like other kinds of food. Pasta, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and desserts are all fine by me. Basically, Iwould eat pretty much anything that tasted good and landed on the plate in front of me. Truth is, I have believed food is necessary to sustain life, but it has never been a focus for me. All that being said, a sudden beef allergy was a total game-changer.
Since finding out about the Alfa-gal allergy, I have learned a lot about keeping my diet life-supporting instead of life-threatening. Through the elimination diet and my own testing and experiments, I have found I am sensitive to all cow/beef products, gluten, chicken, turkey, andfish. I have done my best to steer clear of all the foods that truly are dangerous for my health. Some days are easier than others.
Now, one year after the doctor told me I had a beef allergy, I have my diet pretty well figured out. I eat a whole food plant-based vegan diet, and I avoid gluten. Because of that, I am back to my favorite pastimes—building, tinkering, and restoring vintage cars and airplanes. Mostly, I feelgreat. I am fit. I have regained my stamina. I have lost 30 lbs. My lab results are back in the normal ranges. That burning pain in my muscles is gone.
I am still learning, too. I have learned to pay attention to what my body is telling me, and I try to take the hints sooner. I know my downfall is eating at restaurants. They are risky for the type of allergy I have. No doubt the cooks work in good faith to prepare a meal with no animal products,but it has been tough to find a restaurant that can completely separate the animal from the nonanimal products. When I have a down day, it is the result of eating at a restaurant. It is interesting to note that since we have been sequestered at home with the COVID19 situation,I have been in total control of what goes into my body. I feel much better consistently from day to day when I stick with fruit and vegetables, and assure there is no cross-contact with food to which I am allergic.
I am so grateful to have discovered what was dragging me down. It is empowering to know that I can avoid the food that was eating me alive. It’s funny that when I tell people I have a beef allergy, the most common reaction is, “Oh no! If that happened to me, I would die.” I just smileand tell them, “Not if you knew how bad it makes you feel.”
So I raise a toast in my own kitchen. Here’s to growing glowing plant-based health. Here’s to the new me, just like the old me, but not like the sick me.