Am I going nuts? Or not? I’m not being rhetorical or metaphysical here. I’m on a diet – an “elimination diet” – and nuts are taboo in this land of no-nos. Shelled, raw, toasted, sliced, salted – all those tasty variations are forbidden to me, for a month. A very, very long month.
Despite its name, this diet is not meant to eliminate headaches. It’s not quite that simple. What it’s designed to do is to first deprive me of every food that has ever triggered someone else’s migraine. After a month of these restrictions, I am to choose just one of the outlawed foods, eat it for two or three days, and record what it does to my head. If it doesn’t cause a lot of pain, then it goes in column A. If, instead, a major migraine sets in, then it goes in column B.
Then I’m to stop eating that food, whether it was a grapefruit or a peanut or a hunk of Parmesan cheese, and try another one, again for two to three days. This could take forever, it seems to me, but at the end of the experiment, I will have two lists: One, a list of foods that seem to contribute to my migraines, and the other a list of foods that I can, once again, eat freely.
So, you see, it’s called an elimination diet mainly because it shows, in the end, what foods to eliminate in order to feel better. I have no great hopes of completely eradicating my headaches, especially since even now, eating none of these things, I continue to migrainate daily.
Confronted with elimination dieting, one is expected to be an ascetic, a Zen master, a Trappist monk, not to mention a first-class food detective. Get out the magnifying glass and start scanning the cans, cartons, and containers in the pantry and the fridge, and you’ll be amazed at what you find. The list says, “No MSG,” but what about sodium hexametaphosphate, potassium sorbate, Yellow 5, Blue 1, Red 40? Dairy is another banned substance, but is lactic acid the same as lactose? A supplement I’ve been taking for months – for my health – suddenly appears poisonous, as I notice the whey, lactose, and dried milk solids in its long list of inert ingredients. Does “inert” mean harmless, or does it mean I won’t be able to move a muscle if I take too much?
I understand I can’t have milk or cream or cheese that tastes good. (American cheese is allowed, but I think it was a sad day when the name of our country got slapped onto that plastic orange block.) No cheese – the good kind – takes pizza right off my plate.
It takes some of my favorite toppings off, too, since I can’t have bacon, sausage, or smoked anything. I thought I could live without certain foods, but all you have to do is tell me I can’t eat something, and a strange craving develops. Don’t tell ME not to eat an anchovy.
Besides that, the foundation of any self-respecting pizza is a freshly-risen, yeast-based crust. But fresh yeast is on the no-fly zone, meaning no donuts, no bagels, no coffeecake, no fresh sourdough. Is matzo out? Maybe I can find some hardtack. I find myself thinking fondly of the teething biscuits my kids used to gnaw on, but they’re probably full of something else on the list. Granulated avocados, maybe, or essence of citrus fruit.
Drs. Oz and Weil rave about the antioxidant benefits of dark chocolate, which appears to be the biggest migraine culprit of all. I haven’t gone a day without chocolate since, well, a really long time. I thought I’d need a 12-step program for that one, but I went cold turkey. Hello, my name is Pam. It’s been 17 days since my last chocolate chip.
But hey. I can have wheat. This isn’t, thank heaven, a gluten-free ordeal. I can have popcorn, or even white chocolate-covered pretzels. Now, there’s a balanced diet! I can guzzle strawberries, and blueberries, and cottage cheese, which aren’t bad mixed together. No caffeine, so I had to hunt for decaf tea. I only like coffee drowned in cream, which I can’t have anyway. No Starbucks mochas for me. My sister-in-law calls this sensory deprivation, and I can only sniffle and agree.
Is it worth it? I don’t know. I might find out that 1) Pastrami gives me headaches, or 2) It’s not the food, it’s something else. That’s what I fear the most, that I’ll go to all this trouble and find out nothing in my diet can be pinned to my migraines. If it’s not that, what is it? Changes in the barometric pressure? Reading the Sunday New York Times? Using a keyboard to write my poems? I can’t change any of that – no, really, I can’t. I won’t. Maybe they’re caused by stubbornness, in which case, I’m doomed.
This reminds me of the folktale in which a man complains to a genie that his house is too small. So the genie conjures up six cows, four horses, a pair of oxen, and twelve more kids to share his space. As the man shrieks, “How is this making it better?” the genie snaps his fingers and does away with all the added occupants. Suddenly, the house feels more than big enough.
Here’s a welcome news flash: A new study says diet has nothing to do with migraines. In fact, one researcher finds that craving chocolate may be the brain’s natural response to a bad headache. So perhaps chocolate is good for pain? Some kind of yummy homeopathic cure? Sounds reasonable to me. Pass the M&Ms, please. Wait – make that peanut M&Ms. Thank you.