Lemons into Lemonade By Mat Zucker (Arts ’92)

When someone meets me for the first time, they probably presume my life is picture perfect.  But they are mistaken.  Something invisible is wrong with me.

Almonds. Apples. Avocados. Bananas. Berries. Carrots. Cashews. Coconut. Grapes. Hazelnuts. Kiwi. Lemon. Lime. Mango. Mustard. Nutmeg. Olives. Peaches. Pears. Peanuts. Prunes. Black Pepper. Green Peppers. Red Peppers. Pineapple. Plums. Sesame. Spices. String Beans. Tomatoes. Zucchini.

The list of my food allergies is alphabet long. “What can you eat?” people react often in disbelief hearing the list. I doubt they realize how aggressive that sounds to someone with a condition. Oral Allergy Syndrome is the official name of what I started to first notice as a child and it’s more common than you think. When I was at Cornell, there wasn’t a certified nut-free-allergy-free dining hall, like now, at Risley, but I made it work for myself at Noyes, Okenshields, RPU and later, at my fraternity.

After I graduated from Cornell, my allergies became more pronounced and more challenging; I developed an intolerance to lactose. I was working crazy hours in advertising, living off Manhattan deli tuna fish (usually pre-made with celery), take-out and catered meeting sandwiches. I found it hard to eat safely.

Outside the office wasn’t better. I felt embarrassed when people invited me to dinner, having to either speak up with requests — or stay quiet and worry. Creative cooks can like the quest, but I didn’t want my host to wonder if he was going to kill me. I thought I was in a groove until last year, when a medical checkup revealed diabetic high levels of sugar, forcing a rapid cut back on carbohydrates and sweets. I was like c’mon, no cookies either?! Before I started to miss them, a new, mysterious abdominal pain sent me to WebMD and the gastroenterologist. My lower intestine became inflamed by something I had eaten. Was it celiac disease, which runs in my family?

For three months, I cut back on nearly everything, including dairy and gluten, afraid to eat. I lost more than ten pounds, which sounds like it might be a good thing, but I was constantly hungry and my pants would fall down without a belt. I went for an endoscopy and colonoscopy, but nothing pernicious was found. Thankfully, the regular bloating and pain I had been experiencing had ceased, but the mystery was still there.

My mood was at an all-time low. I hated meals, I hated fearing return of the pain. I certainly didn’t want to go anyone’s house for dinner. I know in this modern age of self-empowerment, you’re supposed to save yourself, but I credit my turnaround with the reactions of two people: my husband Brian and my gastroenterologist Jeffrey.

Brian, also a Cornellian, not to mention a great cook, had watched first-hand my increasing frustration and self-consciousness regarding food. In solidarity, he became gluten-free with me. He also, however, called B.S. on my psychological and social worries, insisting I look at all the foods that I can eat. Despite my narcissistic list of no-fly foods, Brian claimed there was vastly more I could eat. To prove it, he walked me through supermarket aisles pointing, got me to search the Web for stores who sold Mat-friendly fare, and taught me to read ingredient labels. He even got me to swing the psychology by crafting a new “Can Eat” list. Friends inviting me over now didn’t just receive banned food lists from Mat, but ingredients and dishes they could make. Before dinner out, I also started to preview the menu or call the restaurant, so I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed and paralyzed when ordering at the table in front of everyone. And from online groceries across the country, I now order boxes and boxes of gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free snacks to carry around in my bag and take on business trips. I even found substitutes for the things I missed the most, such as pizza and mac ‘n cheese.

My gastro Jeffrey also had a new view to look at treating it: FODMAPs. FODMAPs are molecules in certain foods like asparagus, onions and mushrooms, which absorb poorly in the intestine. High fructose can be a prime villain to look for in ingredients and I was already avoiding it because of my high sugar levels. Safe to eat: many gluten-free foods, which are also lower in FODMAPs, along with kale, potato, broccoli, cantaloupe and meats. While I wasn’t happy to cut out a few more foods like mushrooms and cauliflower, I felt instantly better on the inside and I felt better knowing a likely culprit. After four months of abstention from anything but a bare minimum diet, I was able to re-introduce small amounts of the list, including several veggies, hard cheese and even small amounts of ice cream. Oy, I missed ice cream.

Ironically, I cannot eat lemons but I’ve turned something that was a profound negative into my version of lemonade. I now know more about nutrition than I ever thought I would. I enjoy cooking, which I never did before. I admit that there are days I am hungry and can’t figure out how to handle it. I may whine quietly in a hotel room for a few minutes. But I will dust myself off and with a few Google searches find something amazing like Shake Shack nearby.

I initially couldn’t imagine that food intolerances would fit the initiative of Don’t Hide It Flaunt It. I was probably supposed to write about being gay and coming out. But my invisible difference is the one that haunts me three times a day. I’ve grown from being tortured by what I can’t eat, to enjoying what I can, to even thinking it’s kinda quirky cool.

 

Mat Zucker, Arts ’92, is a partner and digital strategist at Prophet, a global growth consultancy. Mat has been working in marketing for 25 years, starting at Cornell where he was an English major and president of Madison & Tower, the campus advertising and public relations firm Vice President of the Class of 1992 and in Sigma Phi fraternity. He is also a speaker and writer, published in The Bark, Chelsea Now, Contently, Entropy, The Forward and a regular contributor for Forbes.com. Mat and his husband Brian Fuhr ILR ‘93 live in New York’s Hudson Valley with their dog Nora Ephron. Follow him on twitter @matzucker and his blog cidiotlife.com

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