Seeds, nuts, beans, peas, strawberries, raspberries, peaches, soy, peanut butter. Can you figure out what these foods have in common? I can’t. And neither can most other health professionals that identified my food intolerances. It’s a mysterious group of foods to cause negative reactions, but at least I have the list.
Technically, these reactions are known as food intolerances, which are like less severe allergies. In my freshman year of high school, I was administered a test that alerted me to this list of foods I was “allergic” to. It’s helpful in many ways and inconvenient in others—now I know what’s likely to cause one of the near-constant headaches that followed me all throughout middle school.
On the other hand, I can’t pinpoint the exact portion of food that will cause a reaction. For some foods, such as walnuts or avocados, I can eat a large portion and be fine. For other foods, such as strawberries and raspberries, a single bite can give me a migraine.
I don’t know my limits for all the foods. Therefore, my best option is to experiment, to raise the serving size until I reach satisfaction or pain.
What follows is a retelling of my most recent experiment as clearly as I can recount the details. I can only hope that you won’t think too poorly of me for eating something that I was supposedly allergic to. If you do, I encourage you to imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t know whether a food would put you in pain if you ate it. Imagine each granola bar that “may contain peanuts,” or pastry was a game of peanut butter roulette where any bite could mean pain. Maybe you wouldn’t have caved to the curiosity, or maybe you would have taken the risk too.
Really, I think this was only a matter of time.
A Saturday in May, between 4-5 p.m.: I’ve just finished working out with my younger brother, who’s going into his junior year of high school. He plays varsity sports and is taller than I am, so we were both able to handle an intense workout. We’re looking for food to revive us afterward, but we don’t want to ruin our appetites for dinner. I grab the peanut butter jar and dip a spoon in.
“I thought you were allergic,” my brother says.
“I haven’t eaten peanut butter in five years. How should I know?” I respond. It’s a lazy Saturday with no pending obligations for the rest of the weekend, which means that I won’t be missing anything if I have to sleep off a headache.
I take a small spoonful, less than you would put on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “If I get a headache, so be it.”
I definitely wouldn’t have done that if I knew what would happen later.
Saturday, between 6-10 p.m.: I’m starting to realize eating peanut butter wasn’t a good choice when the dull ache grows in the back of my head. I spend time with my family that evening as we usually do, all of us generally paying attention to our devices but hanging around the living room for company.
The headache I have starts fairly mild and steadily gets worse. I keep rubbing my eyes behind my glasses, trying to alleviate the pressure that has slowly spread. Okay, no more peanut butter for me then.
Sometimes, when you get mild symptoms from food that you really love, you’re willing to undergo some discomfort and even pain for that food. The most convincing indication I’ve seen for this are people who are lactose intolerant and would gladly suck down a large milkshake if it were presented to them. (Note: I am lactose intolerant but do not relate. You people are crazy).
Peanut butter is healthy and useful in small doses, but it’s definitely not worth the pain. I drank more water and took Excedrin out of habit and misplaced hope, then went to bed early. The experiment was a bust. Hopefully I could sleep it off.
Then comes Sunday. I do not sleep it off.
I wake up first at 10 a.m. with a strong ache in my temples. I’m hoping it’s from sleeping too long, since I normally wake up much earlier, but I know deeper in my mind it’s not. From here, all the time blurs. I remember that my mom checks on me while it’s still morning.
“How are you feeling, sweetie?” she asks, though the sad tone in her voice says she already knows.
“Bad. I’m going back to sleep.” Despite the darkness of the room, I keep my eyes closed as I take the pills that she gives me and push my face hard into the pillow. I toss and turn and press my knuckles into the sides of my head, but it doesn’t help much. The pain has become stronger and sharper to the point where it doesn’t matter what I do anymore.
Right at the moment I’m writing this, I’m glad I know exactly how bad peanut butter is for me. Now I can avoid the anxiety of having to wonder if each bite of peanut butter will be the one that screws me over.
But during that day, I really, really regretted it. At some point early in the day, I pull up a podcast to listen to quietly in the dark. I need a distraction from the pain. I float between sleep and this half-conscious haze, listening to a story I can hardly follow.
That’s how I spend most of the day. It’s the worst headache and the worst day of pain I’ve had in years.
If you’re thinking, Well, what did you expect, eating something you’re allergic to? That’s dumb as hell. You’re partly right. But I also want to say it again: if I genuinely thought the reaction would be that bad, then I wouldn’t have eaten the peanut butter. I’m not entirely reckless.
Sometime in the evening because time no longer has meaning: I leave the bed once to go to the bathroom and snack on some pretzels, the only food I’ll eat that day. Everything is fuzzy and moves in slow motion the way it does when you’ve slept for way too long or not slept at all. I stumble around with my eyes closed, groping the walls to turn off light switches, because every bit of light is unbearable.
My family whispers. They were very properly concerned about me, though I’m glad to report that now they all gleefully offer me spoonfuls of peanut butter when fixing it for themselves. Pain can be funny when you’re not experiencing it right at that moment.
“What can we do?” whispers one of my parents.
“Stop talking to me,” I whisper back. I stand at the counter for ten minutes, eating pretzels very slowly and silently, before I go back to bed.
Late Monday morning: Despite being comatose most of the day, I manage to sleep through the entire night. I wake up later than normal again, feeling disoriented but pain free. Thank god. I text my parents that I am doing fine this morning. My brother, hair ruffled from sleep, smiles at me around a spoonful of peanut butter.
Thus concludes my cautionary tale of dreadful pain and risky foods. The verdict: peanut butter is officially an off-limits food for me in all quantities and forms, so I’m not taking any risks with raw peanuts or Reese's Cups. It’s a small price to pay for functioning on a daily basis.
Still, I hope I won’t be allergic to it forever. Peanut butter is a great source of protein and fat, and it’s incredibly convenient and filling as a snack. One day I’ll try to conquer it again—just not any time soon.