Monday, December 10, 2012

It's Time to Advocate for Eczema

This has been adapted from an early draft of a speech I wrote for the Eczema Society of Canada’s Patient Education event in Toronto in November 2012. I ended up giving a different talk, but still felt attached to this one. So, here it is, adapted for my blog. As always, I am not endorsed or supported by any organization.

I’d like you to think bigger about eczema. This can be very difficult to do when your skin is itchy and you’re just trying to stop scratching all the time or you’re constantly telling someone you love to “Please stop scratching! You’re making it worse!”  So, this is your opportunity to do so.

I’m going to throw out some specific numbers. According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, up to 17 per cent of people will experience some form of eczema during their lifetime. According to EASE, about 10 to 15 per cent of children who have atopic dermatitis will continue to have it as adults. 40 to 50 percent of children with eczema will develop hayfever, asthma or both. During my search for specific data about eczema, I tried to see what Health Canada had written about it. The answer is absolutely nothing. The prevalence of eczema in the population – for children and adults – is over 10 per cent higher than food allergies (which is 5 to 6 percent in children and 3-4 per cent in adults), yet Health Canada has nothing to say.

I see increasing numbers of newspaper articles and blog posts on food allergy bullying. Horrible that it happens, but great that awareness is growing. I was even asked to share my experience on food allergy bullying by a Canadian blogger, but I had to tell her that I was never bullied because of my food allergies. I was bullied because of my eczema.

If I had to choose to get rid of one condition tomorrow, and I’ve got a few to choose from, I would choose eczema. I would happily stay allergic to pets, foods and pollen if the trade off was no eczema. Funny because it’s pretty unlikely that eczema can kill me. However, anyone with eczema or who cares for someone with eczema can probably understand my thought process when they think of the numerous emotional and physical impacts of eczema.

Yet, eczema is often thought of as somewhat annoying, dry patches of skin. Kids are told that they have to understand that scratching is bad for them and to “just stop”. On television, eczema is the purview of geeky geniuses like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and certainly not something anyone “attractive” or “normal” would have. The truth is that it can be a debilitating condition resulting in lost sleep, missed days of work and school and impacts everything from school work to family life to forming healthy relationships.

I am honestly not sure why eczema (and everything that falls under that blanket term) isn’t regarded as the serious condition it is. Considering some of the new research about the atopic march – essentially the movement from eczema to other atopic conditions and food allergies – eczema should be of great concern and more focus than it has been.

Skin is huge, literally and figuratively. Its importance should not be relegated to being a shiny, flawless canvas for make-up and shaving products designed to show one’s worth, but that’s exactly what it is in every magazine and television show. Skin is literally a barrier between us and the environment - a vital barrier. When it breaks down, it’s not that surprising that everything else does, too. Yet, we continue to layer on cosmetics and creams with known toxins (and some we don’t know about, because we allow companies to hide those ingredients under terms like “perfume” and “parfum”).

So, here’s the call to action, because I believe strongly in calls to action that result in more than a Like in Facebook or a retweet on Twitter. Change happens when people get chatty. Really, annoyingly chatty. We need to create more awareness about the importance and impact of eczema. We need articles in the press about eczema – it’s not contagious, it’s no reason to stare and it doesn’t make me a nerd. The fact that I’m a fan of Star Trek and Doctor Who makes me a nerd.

We need more research on eczema. We need more doctors who spend more time on atopic dermatitis, less time on cosmetic medicine and refuse to give up when a couple of creams don’t work. We need provincial and federal governments to acknowledge its devastating effects amongst all Canadians, notably Aboriginal populations. It’s no less than eczema deserves.

* Due to an increasingly busy work and volunteer schedule, AtopicGirl is going back to two posts a month. Thank you to everyone who’s kept in touch during my recent absence.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

You Are Your Best Advocate

Last evening, I had the opportunity to give a speech at the Eczema Society of Canada's (ESC) Information Session in Toronto. The turnout was great and I was on a panel with the father of an infant with eczema, a dermatology nurse and a paediatric dermatologist. It was a great mix and represented a lot of different perspectives, from the clinic, to the patient with eczema, to the parent of a child with eczema.

It sounds cheesy to say it, but I was honoured to be asked and the experience of talking with people afterwards was amazing. I was in a group where everyone "got it". I will admit I got a bit teary, because I discussed a very difficult period of my life that I've never discussed outside of my family or very select friends. I questioned my choice of topic until the last minute, but as I gave the talk and I saw people nodding while they listened to my experiences, I knew it was the right one. The feedback I received after the event was amazing and I thank everyone who took a couple of minutes to come and say hi, tell me about their personal experiences or ask about my blog.

So, here in a slightly modified form is the talk I gave last night:

I wrote a few different speeches with entirely different topics before I finally got to this version. I wrote one about what my day looks like. Practical, but boring. I also wrote one on the importance of government advocacy in the eczema community. That one was pretty hard to throw away, but a little too involved; so, I'm going to recycle it for my blog.

I finally came to this draft after working on getting some social media exposure for this event and after attending the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance conference in October. I volunteered at the Eczema Society booth during the weekend and it was amazing how many different stories I heard. Some people viewed eczema as a nuisance condition and compared to skin conditions that can be life-threatening, like skin cancer, I can see why they’d say that. One person told me that she’d always thought it was something she had to just deal with, but coming to the conference made her realize that she was ready to do something about her eczema and take control of it. I also heard stories about children who wanted to handle their own skin care routines and about teenagers who were sick of dealing with it. I understand all of that.

In my mid-20s, I had an extremely severe eczema flare-up. It was literally disabling. I was taking large doses of Benadryl throughout the day and night. I couldn’t sleep, let alone work. I was unable to wear anything but the softest cotton clothes, and sometimes even that was too irritating. I didn’t see any of my friends for almost a year. The only contact I had outside of my immediate family and doctors was through email or phone.  I was depressed and began seeing a psychiatrist again, recognizing that I needed help to cope. I refused to leave the house except to see my doctors who said that I just had eczema and there was nothing more they could do. But, I refused to accept this. I knew what my normal skin looked and felt like and that wasn’t even close. After begging  one of my doctors to admit me to hospital, he decided on a much stronger course of action than anyone had been willing to pursue. Within a few months, my skin was back to “normal” – my normal.

That period of my life was difficult and I do everything possible to make sure that it never happens again. I am vigilant about my skin health. I am and will always be my best advocate. If I don’t feel a doctor understands what I need from them, I explain and if they can't or won't understand, I find another one. If I don’t agree with or understand a recommended treatment, I ask questions and express my concerns. If a medication doesn’t work, I say so and try another one. My doctors are only part of my health care regimen.

I make decisions based on scientific evidence; so, while I don’t settle for less than I deserve, I’m also realistic and know that eczema is something that I will always have. For that reason, it's so important that I advocate for my health. It's my job to make sure that I work with my doctors and let them know what's going on in my health. It's my job to ask questions when I don't understand. It's my job to make sure that I follow instructions properly and stick to my regimen. No matter what happens with my eczema, ultimately, my health begins and ends with me.

*NB While I am a support volunteer for ESC, I am in no way endorsed or supported by ESC. My views and opinions are my own.

Monday, November 5, 2012

AtopicGirl's Little Secret

First, I will apologize for my absence. I've moved a couple times and my time has been taken up with new jobs (yes, plural) and a lot of volunteer work. The latter is the point of this post.

Over a year ago, when I started my blog and Twitter feed, I felt like there wasn't a lot of made-in-Canada information for people with food allergies and atopic conditions. That was a major reason why I started this. Happily, I realized I was wrong. There are great organizations like Anaphylaxis Canada, the Asthma Society and more.

About a year ago, I found out about another social profit organization - The Eczema Society of Canada. I signed up for the newsletter and when the Executive Director, Amanda Cresswell-Melville, put out a call through the newsletters for support volunteers, I signed up. It felt right and I was ready to do more.

So, in March I became a support volunteer. I've also had a post in the Summer Newsletter and had the amazing experience of volunteering at two events. The next events coming up are the Eczema Information Sessions in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. I'll get back to that in a second.

The Eczema Society of Canada (ESC) was founded in 1997 by Dr. Bernice Krafchik and a group of parents with the goals of education, awareness and supporting research. Currently, ESC holds patient sessions like the Eczema Information Sessions, provides educational pamphlets (in hard copies and online in both official languages) and has support volunteers available to help others with eczema, like us or our loved ones.

My volunteer work, while it's just started, has been amazing. It's difficult to hear the struggles people have with eczema, but I do know that ESC is there to give hope and help in managing what can be a devastating condition. While growing up, I could have used a support group, or just someone to listen to "got it". For many people, eczema can a debilitating condition, physically and emotionally and ESC is there.

For those reasons and a dozen others, I'm ecstatic that I'll be involved with the Eczema Information Session in Toronto on November 12th. There will be additional information sessions in Montreal on November 8th and Calgary on November 22nd. The events will include speakers, including a dermatologist, trial skin products, a free educational package, light refreshments, and a chance to ask questions to an expert panel. It's also a chance to meet other people with eczema, of all ages.

If you or someone you know has eczema, please attend one of the sessions. If you're not able to do so, visit the Eczema Society of Canada website for comprehensive information about eczema management and to sign up for their newsletter.

If you do decide to attend the Toronto event, please say hi!

*NB While I am a support volunteer for ESC, I am in no way endorsed or supported by ESC. My views and opinions are my own.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Thanksgiving and Thankfulness

I know Thanksgiving is a North American thing and just to fragment that a little bit more, Canadian Thanksgiving is over a month before American Thanksgiving. Personally, that works well for us since coast-to-coast, Canada is stunning in autumn. Yup, there’s rain. But there are also gloriously sunny days when the weather is crisp, the air smells smoky and all the leaves are turning orange, yellow and (my favourite) red. It’s weather that makes you want to take a walk, visit a winery, go trick-or-treating and just generally get what you can out of the weather before you have to don a heavy coat and gloves.

As someone with food allergies and all atopic conditions, you’d think that Thanksgiving might be a difficult time for me. The thing is, that I’m grateful for the allergies that I do have. I could have more. I could have ones that are more difficult to handle. As it is, it’s pretty easy for my family to create an allergy-free meal that we can all eat without feeling like they’re missing out anything. There are often some dishes with butter (but I get my own version) or desserts I can’t share in, but since we spend Thanksgiving in Ottawa, I have two great bakeries to choose from – Auntie Loo’s (vegan with gluten-free options) and Thimblecakes (nut-free bakery with vegan and gluten-free – and more – options). So, I’m never at a loss and I don’t have to make my own dessert, though I’ve been eyeing an allergy-friendly plum tart I saw in the Globe and Mail a while back.

I don’t want to say that you should be thankful because “things could be worse”. That’s not all that optimistic. I’ve never loved the rationale that everyone in North America should be thankful because at least we’re not starving in Africa. There’s poverty throughout this continent and on every other continent, except Antarctica. Though at the rate we’re going, I’m a little worried about the penguin’s food supply.

So, as people with food allergies, let’s consider all the people who don’t have the money to buy things like gluten-free products, dairy-free products and nut-free products. Food allergies are not a problem limited to those of middle- and upper-incomes. Children, adolescents and adults who can’t afford to eat both well and allergy-free need our help, our knowledge and our compassion.

I really hope you contact your food bank and find out what food allergy-friendly food they can use throughout this year and contribute accordingly. Sometimes, that may mean simply donating money they can use to buy what’s needed.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just to get you started, here are a few webpages to find out more. No time like the present!

Food Banks Canada (

Monday, September 24, 2012

101 Ways to Prevent Asthma, Allergies, Eczema and Hayfever

Okay, if you got here because you think I'm going to offer you advice on how to prevent anything, I'm not. The title is entirely facetious. If you've read my blog, you know that I don't believe in cures for non-curable conditions (atopy and allergies) and I don't offer medical advice.

Recently, I had a brief Twitter discussion resulting from this BBC News article: 'Super soup" test in asthma trial. It also followed a few discussions I had with some parents at a wedding a couple of weeks ago about the current "wisdom" regarding what mothers should eat during pregnancy to prevent their child developing a condition like asthma. For the moment, nuts seem to be the recommended food to eat during pregnancy.

The Twitter discussion ended up with both of us agreeing that we'd love it if there were one resource in which a parent could access all the things they're supposed to do and not supposed to do during pregnant. The list could include get more Vitamin E in your diet, get a cat (but don't change the litter box), eat nuts, don't smoke, don't drink, limit your caffeine intake, etc.

Since I have allergies and atopy, a list like this would be perfect for me since no matter what I do, should I have a child, he or she is very likely to have the same conditions. With one parent, the risk is 25 per cent, but risk is a funny thing. It doesn't mean that should I have four children only one would have the conditions. It means that every time I have a child, the risk is 25 per cent. Should the father have any allergic or atopic condition (even hayfever counts), that risks soars. Add in all the dos and don'ts and the fact that those change, and I think that a parent can do everything "right" and still end up with an atopic and/or allergic child.

A few years ago, the prevailing "wisdom" said that delaying the introduction of priority allergen foods for children would prevent them from developing allergies. Milk seems to be the exception there, which is probably more of a lobbying effort than anything else. My sister did that with all of her children. No allergies. However, the current "wisdom" is totally opposite, though they do say to introduce solid foods later, rather than sooner.

However, will the evidence suggest otherwise in a few years? Maybe. Probably. At a recent medical talk I attended, one of the doctors stated that "Medicine is an art". I've heard that said by many doctors, probably the better ones.

But, can there be a list that tells us exactly what to do to prevent disease? Not right now, but I'd like to think there will be.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Atopic Girl's Week Off

I am moving - physically, not social media-ly - so, the blog is on hold for the week. I will return as scheduled on Monday, September 24th. I will remain a bit quieter on Twitter this week, but if you tweet me I will reply. Same goes for email. If you're reading this and thinking, I wonder if AtopicGirl plans to cover , there's only one way to find out. Email me or leave a comment below.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Atopic Girl's Weekend Off!

Being an "atopic" girl doesn't mean that I just think about allergies and atopy all day long. Honestly, I don't think about it all that much. Labour Day weekend was a great example of how I integrate the fact that I have allergies and atopy and love travelling, eating, shopping and having a great time in general. Nothing in that sentence excludes anything else. This is a bit of a longer post, but I hope it gives you an idea of how anyone with allergies or atopy can live pretty normally.

I arrived in Toronto to meet my younger sister. The plan, have a manicure, have lunch with my sister and then go find her a dress for a glitzy Indian wedding on Saturday!

At Holt's Salon and Spa, located at the flagship Holt Renfrew store on Bloor Street, I happily sat back and enjoyed my hand massage and Express Manicure. I've been there and know that none of the products contain my allergens. It's always good to check, especially if you have a new aesthetician.

A bit later, my sister and I met up at Fresh on Bloor, near Spadina. This is my favourite Fresh in Toronto. Even though I've been there about a hundred times by now, I still let them know about my allergies (leaving out eggs and shellfish, because they don't have them on site). I emphasized my allergy to cashews, since they use them in a couple of dishes, but made sure they knew that almonds are okay. As always, I had an allergy-free and really delicious meal - cornbread with hummus, Ninja rice bowl and a matcha green tea latte with almond milk to go. I was ridiculously full for hours.*

All RentFrockRepeat!
Fresh was followed by RentFrockRepeat on Golden Avenue, just off of Dundas Street West. It's about a 20 minute streetcar ride from St. Patrick Station. The premise of RFR is brilliant. Rent a designer dress for a totally reasonable price. If you live in or are visiting the GTA, you can go in and try on the dress. If not, the site has detailed measurements and you can even ask for a second size (for free) in case the first one doesn't fit. They ship the dress out to you and you ship it back. Have two events to attend during the same time period? Rent a second dress for $35. And, if you refer a friend, you get a credit towards a future dress rental. I know! Brilliant! I actually visited RentFrockRepeat a few weeks earlier to try on a stunning David Meister dress for the wedding in question. Happily, it went up for sale and I bought it. My sister decided to try it out and we spent an hour and half in RFR amongst too many stunning dresses. Everyone there is amazing and friendly. I couldn't have spent a better afternoon. We were super lucky and met the CEO and Co-Founder, Lisa Delorme. Yes, she's that stunning in person.

That evening included mobile phones that weren't turned on and GO buses to suburbia. Thankfully, it also included a great martini from the bar in the lovely Fairmont Royal York and an easy, allergy-friendly meal from Spring Rolls in the Bramalea City Centre in Brampton. I love allergy-friendly chains and Spring Rolls is definitely one of them.

Unfortunately, I'd forgotten to inform the hotel that we needed down-free bedding. While the hotel had somehow run out of synthetic fibre pillows, I found that some of the pillows in our room were synthetic and we ended up all right. Definite note for next time though.

Breakfast was included and provided by the hotel, but I planned ahead and brought an allergy-friendly, travel-friendly protein powder (Genuine Health Vegan Proteins) which I could easily mix with orange juice. Thank goodness since they didn't even have fruit!

If you've been following my blog or Twitter feed, you may know that I was expected to sing at a wedding. While I have a Grade 8 in Voice from the Royal Conservatory, I got it quite a while ago. So, even with my two months of vocal lessons, I was nervous. I practiced in the shower that morning and thankfully my voice wasn't hoarse and my asthma was under control. I will admit that I started off a bit shakily when I started singing in front of a packed church, but I bucked up and asthma-smasthma - I sang my heart out.

Between the wedding and the reception, we need to grab a very late lunch. I headed to another allergy-friendly chain, Moxie's, also at the Bramalea City Centre. The menu here changes so sometimes I have a lot of choices and sometimes not a lot. This time, I chose the Citrus Chicken to go and when the manager came out to speak with me, she let me know that the dish was totally free of all my allergens! I felt like I'd won a prize! It was delicious and I happily wolfed it down at the hotel.

The picture looks odd as it's sideways
The reception was held at the Pearson Convention Centre. I called them months in advance to let them know about my allergies. The chefs are made aware of the allergies ahead of time and then on the day, guests are provided with colour-coded cards. I had a red card which listed all my allergies. The salad and pasta were safe, they just omitted the cheese on the latter. And the meal itself, beef, chicken and veggies, were easy and delicious without the sauce. Dessert was a martini glass of fresh fruit.

The top off to a great weekend was brunch at Frank at the AGO. I've been here a few times for drinks and appetizers, but never a meal. To celebrate my mother's birthday, the entire family got together (from as far flung as Peru and Ottawa) and had the best brunch I've ever had. When I made the reservation, I let them know about my allergies and was told that it wasn't a problem. Before we arrived, the server and the chef had a discussion about what would work. I had to reiterate my egg allergy, but once that was done, I found I had quite a few choices on the menu. I ended up with a beavertail bacon sandwich with apple butter which is even better than it sounds.

That was my weekend. Pretty spectacular. I didn't let my eczema, asthma or food allergies get in my way. I stuck to my regimen - washed my face, used moisturizer, used save shaving tips, and always double-checked food ingredients. That's the way to live an atopic life!

* I went back to Fresh (on Bloor) on Tuesday and had a Miso Burger (a fave), a glass of organic wine and took a Sweets From the Earth cupcake to go. You can never get bored at Fresh.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Allergies & Atopy on Television

I've written a post with my PR cap on. This time, I'm writing it with my media cap on since I have a ridiculous amount of media education.

I find it interesting whenever I see a character on television or in the movies who has an allergy, asthma or more rarely eczema. So, I've taken a quick look at some television allergics and atopics. I can't say that I like what I see.

1. Being Erica - This show, about a time-travelling Toronto girl (in a very un-multicultural Toronto, might I add), had a lead character with a hazelnut allergy. She ends up in the ER in the first episode because she accepts a sample of coffee which turns out to have hazelnuts in it. Erica ate out, but never mentioned her allergy and she certainly didn't carry an auto-injector around with her. It was just a lazy, plot device to make her life seem even worse. At least she wasn't a stereotype like the following examples.

2. Big Bang Theory - I enjoy this show, though I don't go out of my way to watch it. I get the shirts that Sheldon wears and I giggled girlishly when Neil deGrasse-Tyson made a guest appearance. What bugs me about this show is that allergies and eczema are seen as part and parcel of being a geek or nerd. Leonard has lactose-intolerance which makes for some boring fart jokes. Sheldon has eczema which is seen as part of his anal attitude. Wolowitz has a severe peanut allergy (and yet no auto-injector), which resulted in a very disturbing ER scene which was meant as a joke.

3. The Simpsons - Poor, gawky, geeky Milhouse carries around his blue puffer like an addict. Any little thing could set him off and he has to take a dose. On one episode, Bart steals Milhouse's puffer to use like an oxygen tank. I won't even bother trying to critique that one. On another episode, Bart develops a temporary eczema-like condition on his scalp and it just contributes to his transformation into a geek.

4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Geeky and a member of the wanna-be villainous Trio in the latter seasons, Jonathan is allergic to methane. My unscientific guess is that you can't be allergic to methane, but a hyper-sensitive geek has to be allergic to something. I can't even imagine how you'd test for that. Plus, depending on the parts per million, methane is a toxic gas. Therefore, it will kill anyone. Sorry Joss Whedon! I mostly love your stuff, but try again.

5. VEEP - White House employee and impossible to like Jonah is fructose-intolerant. No, it's not an allergy and yes, the condition does exist. Funny that the most annoying character has it. Not funny that the reaction from his co-workers is "Just when you thought he couldn't get any weirder, he did" since allergic and atopic conditions don't make one weird.

I don't watch a lot of television, but everyone has an image of the coke-bottled little geek puffing away from his blue inhaler or a nasally-voiced child whining that he can't eat peanuts, shellfish and a million other things that make him sound like the last person you'd want at your party. The kid with eczema is always just kinda gross.

Allergies and atopic conditions are becoming increasingly common and it would be nice if television writers could do their jobs and be creative and funny. Out-dated stereotypes as fodder for "humour" are boring and cheap. If writers can't use their imagination to write funny yet responsible portrayals of people with allergies and atopy, best not to write them at all.

While my examples are shows geared towards older teens and adults, I don't think it's fair for this kind of ill-informed stigma to be placed on young children. These aren't choices made in order to be difficult or to annoy people. No one would choose to have a life-threatening reaction to a Montreal-style bagel with cream cheese and lox; so, I cannot fathom how writers and some viewers are able to find humour in something that can cause pain, suffering and death.

Further Information:
How Kids With Asthma are Stigmatized by the Media

Monday, August 20, 2012

Easy, Allergy-Friendly Chili Burritos

I promise I'm not going to make a habit of posting recipes, but this one was just too easy. It's a bit of a non-recipe, since I'm not going through all the steps, but I loved the result I got from leftovers.

The story is that I had leftovers components after making quesadillas. I had been thinking about making burritos and looked up some recipes. All of a sudden it occured to me that I had some leftover chili. So, this is the "recipe":

Easy Chili Burritos
Makes 1
Dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, peanut-free, shellfish-free & fish-free

Can be soy-free, gluten-free, vegan

Your favourite chili recipe
Tortilla shells (small- or medium-sized)
Daiya Cheese-style Shreds (Mozzarella, Cheddar or Pepper Jack)
Fresh coriander (optional, but highly recommended)
La Bomba or your favourite hot sauce (optional)
Your favourite salsa
Baking sheet
Aluminum foil

1. Turn the oven to 350 F. I don't preheat for this. By the time you assemble one burrito, the oven is probably hot enough.
2. Place a medium-sized piece of aluminum foil on your baking sheet. It should be large enough to totally wrap one folded burrito.
3. Place one tortilla shell on the aluminum foil, in the centre.
4. Place a good teaspoon (or two) of La Bomba or your favourite hot sauce on the tortilla. Make sure to keep it mostly central. The amount you use totally depends on how hot you want it.
5. Spoon a couple tablespoons of your favourite chili onto the centre of your tortilla. Don't overfill.
6. Lay a few coriander leaves on top of the chili. If you love coriander, 5-7 or more will do.
7. Sprinkle your choice of Daiya Cheese-style Shreds on top.
8. Wrap your tortilla. Fold over the bottom and the top and while holding those down, fold over the sides so they overlap the bottom and top and you end up with a wrap.
9. Holding that closed, wrap the sides and then the top and bottom of the aluminum foil around your burrito. This keeps it nice and tight and you'll end up with a sealed burrito when you're done
10. Turn over the burrito package so the seam side of the burrito is down.
11. Pop in the oven for 10 minutes.
12. If you like a nice brown top, turn on the broiler (don't worry about pre-heating), unwrap the foil so the top is exposed and bake for another 2-3 minutes. Watch carefully. You can also sprinkle a little extra Daiya and get a bubbly, cheesy topping.
13. Serve with your favourite (warmed) salsa and a side salad.

C'est tout. Enjoy! If you're a singleton like me, this is an easy, yummy and not entirely unhealthy dinner for any night of the week.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Vocal Lessons, the Olympics and Asthma

Well, the Olympics is finished, the Paralympics is about to begin and I am only two weeks of singing lessons away from singing at a wedding. Since you're probably asking what an international amateur sport competition has to do with singing lessons, I'll get into it quickly.

Briefly, in my early 20s, I was a fairly decent singer. I got my Grade 8 from the Royal Conservatory of Music, was accepted into a semi-pro choir (though couldn't join), asked and hired to sing at weddings and if there was one thing I was confident about, it was that I could sing well. Over a decade later, my voice hasn't gotten much exercise and singing is something I'm no longer confident about. So, when I was asked to sing at wedding recently, I knew I had to take lessons again. Unfortunately, my asthma is now an issue. I simply don't have the lung capacity I did when I was younger. I'm also suffering from intermittent hoarseness which I will bring up with my doctor shortly.

What got me thinking about the connection between singing and sports was this article from the Globe and Mail - Why Asthma Doesn't Stop Elite Athletes. While the increased prevalence of asthma amongst athletes may be caused by the fact that they often train in very polluted environments, asthma seems to have no impact on their results. In fact, athletes with asthma are well-represented in medal counts. Why doesn't asthma stop these athletes? Researchers pinpointed that the extensive warm-ups performed actually gave a protective effect against broncho-constriction. In other words, proper warm-ups and exercising are good for asthma. It's something doctors have been increasingly telling their asthma patients after decades of saying the opposite, but it's something that needs repeating.

Regarding singing, I've started to increase my physical workout hoping to increase my lung capacity. I won't warm-up with an exercise routine directly before vocal practice for various reasons, but I hope by practicing daily (when I'm not suffering from hoarseness) and exercising, I can restore my voice and help my lungs and asthma out in the process. The lesson here is an old one - use it or lose it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Happy Food Allergen Labelling Day!

Today, August 4th, is the day that new food allergen labelling comes into effect in Canada. Definitely a good reason to post early*. Advocates from across the country and from many allergy advocacy groups have been working to get to this stage for years. So, it's impressive and very welcome.

The question is what does it mean? I can't possibly cover everything, but I will point out a few changes.

First, there are improvements regarding the clarity of what priority allergens are included. "Contains" means that the allergen is an ingredient deliberately used in the product. Statements like "may contain" or "manufactured in a facility that processes peanuts" are considered "precautionary labelling" and are not covered under the new labelling law. If these are included, it is done voluntarily by the company. It's also important to note that labelling laws in Canada are not the same for foods produced elsewhere; so, please continue to use caution when buying imported foods.

Second, the priority allergens contained in food (i.e. seasonings) have to be spelled out. So, if your allergen(s) or intolerance(s) fall within the Big 9, which includes sulphites, gluten and now mustard seeds, you're in luck. For example, for people with egg or soy allergies, you don't have to call the company to find out what type of lecithin is in your product any longer. However, if you have an allergy to garlic or cinnamon, your allergen may still be hidden.

Third, any wine dated from 2012 and onwards is required to list any of the priority allergens on the label. Fining agents (i.e. egg, dairy and fish proteins) are often used in the production of wine; however, not everyone with a shellfish or egg allergy will react. Vintage wines, 2011 and before, will still maintain the same labels. This makes sense of course. It's hard to grandfather this sort of thing and according to Health Canada, no traces of allergen protein were found in a random sampling of 100 bottles of wine which followed "good manufacturing practices"; so, there is no huge risk to the allergic population. However, in cases where these practices are not followed (i.e.: proper filtration), proteins can be found in sufficient quantities to trigger a reaction. According to Health Canada, should proteins not exist in the wine, no labelling is required, even if the allergens were used as fining agents. However, should the proteins be present after filtration, then the new allergen labelling must be applied. Sulphites will also be listed on the label where present.

However, what's true for wine is not true for beer. Beer is considered "standardized" - made up of relatively similar ingredients, no matter the brand or type of beer. However, beer can contain allergens (besides gluten) and sulphites; so, it is still up to the allergic consumer to be careful of what they drink. For a list of some beers which contain allergens, read Elizabeth Goldenberg's 2011 post "Allergic to Beer or Wine?" on her OneSpot blog. What is important to note is that beer labelling is not considered a "done deal"; so, write your MP and the Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, to let them know you want allergen labelling for beer. 

That is a very brief overview of the new allergen labelling regulations. I encourage you to read up on the new labelling to find out how it impacts you and your family and if you find an error, contact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Personally, I will still read all the ingredients, not just the "Contains" section, even though my allergens are all priority ones. It's just another tool I'll use to make sure my foods are safe.

In the end, this is an amazing step forward. Still, we shouldn't stop here. The end goal for the allergic community should be to make sure that no food has hidden ingredients. As consumers, we deserve to know exactly what we're putting into our bodies.

* This post takes the place of next week's Monday post. Regularly scheduled AtopicGirl posts will return on Monday, August 13th.

Food Allergen Labelling - Health Canada 
Vintage Wine and Application of Enhanced Allergen Regulations - Health Canada
Questions and Answers About the New Regulations to Enhance the Labelling of Food Allergens, Gluten and Added Sulphites - Health Canada