Category Archives: Food & Recipes

Iron in Foods

I’ve been a non-meat eater for nearly 30 years and have never before had low iron levels.   That’s because I eat a wide range of foods and always have a vitamin C drink (smoothie, cordial, fruit juice) with my main meals which helps iron absorption.  I suspect my current low iron status is down to the drugs I need for my GERD, the bleeding in my pelvis due to my endometriosis or possibly some kind of bleeding going on in my stomach (it’s certainly painful enough).  However, because I’ve changed my diet and gone “low histamine” in the last 4 years I wanted to take a closer look at the foods I’m now eating, just to make sure I was still getting enough iron in my diet.

Menstruating women need approx 14-15mg of iron daily.  Men and post-menopausal women need 8-10mg.  However it’s impossible to know how much iron our bodies are taking in because:

  • iron content isn’t listed on food labels.
  • iron absorption can be affected by drugs, stomach issues, illnesses etc.
  • iron absorption depends on your existing iron stores.
  • some foods help iron absorption, eg Vitamin C, acids and sugars, and some foods hinder iron absorption, eg tanins (in tea) and phytates (found in whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes).
  • iron is absorbed by the body differently depending on whether the food comes from a plant or an animal.  Plant sources (non-heme iron) make up around 90% of the iron most people eat and animal sources (heme iron) make up around 10% of the iron most people eat.  However, the body absorbs heme iron much better than non-heme iron.

In reality, the process by which the body utilizes iron is complex and it’s just not as simple as “oh for heavens sake eat a steak!”

I did a bit of Googling and found sensational headlines like “pistachio nuts contain 4 times the level of iron than other nuts”.  Excellent, I love pistachios!  However it wasn’t actually true.  I sourced the iron content of foods from the United States Dept of Agriculture’s Food Composition Database (which is excellent) and discovered that Pistachio nuts actually have less iron than, for example, Cashew nuts so I’ve no idea where these headlines have come from.

Meat is widely touted as being the best source of iron.  However, a skinless cooked chicken breast contains 1mg iron whereas 2 slices of unfortified white bread contains 2mg iron!  It’s then you have to bear in mind that the bread is less easily absorbed than the chicken, but by how much no-one knows.  Dairy is also widely purported to be high in iron, but according to the Database a ½pint (275ml, 1 cup) serving of milk has hardly any iron in at all and a large 100g serving of grated mozzarella cheese only 0.44mg.  Balance that against a 2 tblsp serving of sunflower seeds which contain 1.57mg iron and I know which I’ll be eating more of in future.

I wrote down everything I ate over a few days and added up the total iron content, which came to between 18-20mg of iron per day.  As mentioned, though, nearly all of my iron comes from non-animal sources so I’ve no idea how much iron I’m actually absorbing but I think on balance I’m consuming enough for my diet to not be the cause of my iron deficiency.

There were shock findings in my little research project which I wanted to share with you:

  • Treacle is high in iron.  I use treacle when making my gingerbread and according to the Database 1 slice of home-made gingerbread contains over 2mg iron.  Way-heyyy!
  • Puff pastry is high in iron.  Who knew!  A 150g slab of cooked puff pastry contains nearly 4mg iron, which is huge.  I’ve always felt guilty about eating puff pastry because of its high butter/fat content but it’s a positive health food 😉
  • I’d read that seeds are high in iron and this turned out to be correct. Dried chia seeds are top with a 1oz (30g, 2tblsp) serving containing 2.19mg.  A 1oz (30g) serving of Sunflower seeds has 1.57mg and a 2 tsp (10g) serving of Sesame seeds has 1.31mg.  An easy way of eating more seeds is to buy seeded bread, or to crush the seeds and add them to smoothies.
  • There isn’t as much iron in meat as I’d been led to believe unless you regularly eat wild bear or bison.  A restaurant style sirloin steak has 4.27mg iron but a pork chop only 1.67mg and a skinless chicken breast a mere 1mg.  A salmon fillet has 1.59mg.  Bear in mind though that more of the iron from meat is absorbed by the body than iron from other sources.
  • I worked out my home-made tomato-less baked beans contain a whopping 5mg iron per serving!  That’s because beans are high in iron but more importantly I make them with treacle.

It’s been interesting, if a bit confusing, looking at iron in foods and I realize that much of the information widely given is either incorrect or at the very least a bit misleading.  The fact that milk is so low in iron I found shocking, especially when we’re told dairy is a good source of the mineral, and most meat isn’t as high in iron as we’re lead to believe.  My confusion came when looking at foods such as beans, nuts, seeds and lentils, which are good sources of iron but also contain phytates which hinder iron absorption, so we have no idea how much of the iron is actually being utilized.  Taking Vitamin C with a meal, eg. fruit juice, to help iron absorption still seems like good advice but I discovered you have to be careful which fruit you squeeze.  A small study found that dark juices such as prune and red grape may actually hinder iron absorption, so are best avoided.

If you want to check your own diet for iron content I found these sites helpful:

Re-introducing foods

I was doing so well on my ‘low histamine’ diet that last year I decided to re-introduce some foods I’d been avoiding – you can read all about it here.  Initially they seemed to be having no effect on my histamine load whatsoever and I was all smug, but as time went on my histamine bucket began to fill up.  After about 5 months my body was definitely not happy and I was having some symptoms I’d forgotten existed, like pins and needles in my bowel after eating, having to get up in the night to pee, insomnia and hay fever symptoms.

Here’s the thing about Mast Cell Disease though – it’s easy to say “it’s my MCAD playing up because I’m eating x, y or z again” and in some respects this turned out to be the case, but in others not.  My best mate doesn’t have MCAD but she does get hay fever really badly and at Christmas she told me her hay fever had gone berserk, as had a friend of hers.  December is the middle of winter here in the UK and it’s been freezing.  There’s no way on earth there should be any pollen around, but our symptoms seem to say otherwise!  I live surrounded by woodland and am truly allergic to some tree pollens, so we can only assume spring will come early this year.

My hormones have also been seriously out of whack in recent months and from reading menopause forums even healthy women can develop allergy symptoms during this time in their lives along with pain and insomnia.  So how much of my symptoms are down to my hormones, rather than what I’m eating, is impossible to tell.

My EDS has also gone absolutely nuts and the inflammation from that isn’t doing my body any favours.

Having said all that I just had a sneaking suspicion that all the chocolate I was eating wasn’t helping the situation so I cut it out.  And I definitely feel my histamine levels have dropped as a result.  I still have no reaction at all to baker’s yeast in normal bread, lemon juice and store bought mayonnaise so am continuing to include those in my diet which makes eating lunch out a shed load easier.

If I could re-introduce one food it would be tinned chopped tomatoes.  As a vegetarian tomatoes are in everything and, dammit, they taste good!  I substitute tomatoes for my home made red pepper sauce in recipes and this has worked great, but I spend an awful lot of my time and energy making the sauce and it would revolutionize my life to not have to do that.  So I’m toying with the idea of re-introducing tomatoes and seeing how I get on.  I’m not sure now is the best time, however, with hay fever season approaching and my hormones so out of whack, so I’ll let you know what I decide.

I forgot to tell you all that over Christmas I found some delicious mints with allowed ingredients.  Bassetts Mint Creams contain sugar, glucose syrup, water and mint flavouring and are available from Sainsburys, Morrisons, ASDA and Ocado and are suitable for vegetarians.  No more having to faff about making my own mint fondants when I fancy a special treat 🙂

Food Skeptic

As anyone reading my blog regularly will know, I’m skeptical.  About lots of things, but in particular about all the information we read online about food. One week we should all be eating Goji berries and the next week Kale.  The only thing people in my neck of the woods have ever used Kale for is to feed sheep and I don’t even know what a Goji berry looks like.  I’m fairly sure none of my ancestors did either, yet I can trace my family back to the Viking invasion in the 700s AD so they managed to live long and healthily enough to produce 1500 years of ancestors despite having the same genetic diseases as me (my Mum’s Dupytrens Contracture has been traced back to the Nordic invasion through a study she took part in).

There was a recent article in the Daily Mirror by Dr Miriam Stoppard about supplements and how our bodies aren’t designed to utilize them.  If you take too much Vitamin C for example you just end up with very expensive pee.  There’s a lot of medical talk these days that we should ingest so many ugs of this vitamin and so many nanols of that mineral, forgetting that our ancestors lived on a massively restricted diet compared to us and yet worked physically harder than our generation ever have, producing up to 12 children per family along the way and not a vitamin supplement in sight!

There’s a big hoo ha about Vitamin D at the moment and how we northerners in particular don’t get enough sunlight in the winter.  And it has to be said that I’ve had my Vit D levels checked in winter and they’ve been lowish, as against very high levels in summer (despite our lack of sunshine!).  But hasn’t that always been the case?  It wasn’t any sunnier in northern England in the 700s AD yet we’re all still here and functioning.  In fact, people who live in hot climates seem to sleep a damned sight more than people living in cold climates – you try getting food at 2pm on a Greek island and you’ll struggle, cos they’re all knackered and having a siesta 😉  And as far as I know, people living in Scandinavian countries are healthy enough despite their lack of sunshine.  The lack of vitamin D might have a lot more to do with the fact that none of us go outside in winter these days – we don’t walk to school, we don’t work outdoors not even to hang washing and we travel everywhere in our cars.  As a baby I was placed in my pram, even in the depth of winter, every afternoon for a sleep outside – it was considered healthy, and probably was.

IMHO we absolutely do not need the massive range of foods we have available in Western countries.  Yes it’s important to eat a balanced diet, but that basically means eat some protein, carbs and fat each day not to eat a huge variety of foods.  If my ancestors have lived in northern England for 1500 years surely I’d do better to eat whatever they’ve eaten for the last millennia, not imported foods like medjool dates or coconuts?  If the theory of evolution is correct my ancestors have naturally evolved to live on the foods available to us here in England which is lamb not buffalo, pears not mangos, wheat not rice.

Of course, the way we produce our food has radically altered for the worse in the last 60 years which is why I try to buy organic produce whenever possible.  Organic soil is so much richer in minerals than none-organic and organic farmers still tend to use natural methods of crop rotation.  Organic animals are reared in a more natural way, ie on grass in the open air, and aren’t given anywhere near the same levels of drugs that none-organic animals are pumped full of.  Their food is also not laden with chemicals and fertilizers.

None of us cook from scratch anymore either, which has a massive impact on our health.  I was absolutely shocked when I wrote this blog post, detailing the chemicals in a modern convenience diet rather than a similar home-cooked diet.  I am absolutely convinced that our current obesity crisis, and many of our health issues, are more to do with the chemicals and drugs in our foods than anything else.  Our bodies aren’t designed to handle 50 different chemicals (additives, fertilizers, supplements, drugs, hormones) a day, it’s just that simple.

I’m not saying that our ancestor’s lives were all rose tinted, but their health issues and early deaths were more to do with over-work, poverty (and resulting lack of food of any description, let alone a balanced diet) and the inability to treat disease (no penicillin for example) than not having access to supplements or enough sunshine.

I always read with a wry smile that we should be following a “mediterranean diet”.  Why’s that then?  Do people in the Med not have heart attacks or get cancer?  Do they all live 20 years longer than the rest of us?  Actually I know the answer to that – the average life expectancy in Spain is 82, as against 81 in England.  Do people living in California, or South Africa, not get cancer being as though it’s so sunny there?

I’m not suggesting chucking the baby out with the bath water.  Some supplements are absolutely necessary, eg folic acid before pregnancy, B12 for anaemia, but unless there is some fundamental underlying health issue I wholeheartedly belive supplements are a waste of money.  Getting out in the winter sun will do you more good than fortifying cardboard breakfast cereal with vitamin D (does anyone really eat breakfast cereals?  They’re not food!).  And I believe a simple, local, organic diet and cooking foods yourself are a million times better for you than eating imported foods which have been picked before they are ripe, washed with bleach, irradiated to keep them looking fresh, and transported for several weeks before they reach your plate especially if you’re on a low histamine diet.

I’m sure some people will argue with me, but the food industry is just that………..an industry.  An industry which needs to make you buy their shit, whether or not you need it or it’s good for you.

New Recipes

I’ve tried 4 new recipes recently, 2 of which have worked and 2 of which haven’t.  Luckily the 2 that worked are both lunch recipes and I’m always stuck for portable lunches.

The first is a creamy mushroom and mustard pie, though if you react to mushrooms you could use any veg you like.  It’s lovely either hot or cold and can be frozen and just reheated in the oven.  Recipes in the Lunches section of my blog:

Creamy mushroom pie recipeThe second is a vegetable jalousie (basically roasted veg and cream cheese in pastry), which can also be eaten hot or cold.  Again, the recipe is in the Lunches section:

jalousieAlthough I class both of these pastries as lunch dishes they’d be equally good for dinner with some mashed potatoes, carrots or broccoli.

If you’re not in the UK some of the branded or pre-packaged ingredients won’t be available to you but I hope you can adapt the recipes to items in your local stores.  The recipes are neither gluten-free nor dairy free, so apologies to any of my readers following a more restricted diet than me.  To everyone else, I hope if you make them you find them tasty 🙂

New Recipe

Don’t get too excited from the title because it’s just a recipe for Jam, but breakfast is my favourite meal of the day so Jam is important to me 😉

A few feet away from my house is a small patch of neglected ground, on which grows a Damson tree.  I think Damsons are native to Britain, so apologies if you don’t get Damsons in America, NZ, Australia etc, but I think they are also grown in some parts of Europe.  Damsons are a member of the plum family, so if for some reason you’re avoiding stone fruits avoid Damsons (there is zero evidence for any stone fruit, or any other fruit for that matter, being high in histamine so I eat them and love them!)

Damsons are at their best in September and this tree was heaving with fruit, so I picked over 4lbs free, gratis and for nothing 🙂  I added some sugar, boiled for 10 mins, and made 10 pots of gorgeous tart, sweet, Jam – recipe on the Jams & Sauces page of my blog.

Damson jam recipe
Damson jam always reminds me of my late Nanna, who used to make it every year.  She always left the odd stone in (as I do) because it does give the jam more flavour and as a kid I felt cheated if I didn’t find one.  Damson jam would also be a good base for a meat or fish sauce as it’s both tangy and sweet.

While I’m on the subject of food, Elderberries are high in Quercetin which is a known mast cell stabilizer and I didn’t realize that Tesco stock Sambucol which is an Elderberry concentrated drink with added Vitamin C (another mast cell stabilizer).  It’s expensive at £9 per bottle, but if like me you shop regularly at Tesco you can use your Vouchers towards the expense.

I’ve also discovered a couple of items from the Gosh! range which are suitable for a low histamine diet and are vegetarian – the Beetroot, Kale & Quinoa Burgers, and the Mixed Seed & Quinoa Bakes both of which I’ve tried and are tasty.  Gosh! foods are free from major allergens, including gluten, eggs, milk, soya, nuts and peanuts so are pretty cutting edge as pre-prepared foods go.  They also add the least amount of additives and preservatives that they can.  Available from Tesco or see the Gosh! website for stockists.

I’ve been trying out 2 or 3 new main course recipes the past few weeks, but haven’t perfected them yet.  One of the ones I tried was for a Quorn stew which had nothing but 5 star reviews online.  I tried it and the carrots were raw, the gravy didn’t thicken and the dumplings didn’t rise despite following the recipe faithfully.  I’ve no idea why some recipes don’t work well, or why other people rave about them and I find them tasteless or difficult to make, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles frustrating as it is.  If any of the new meals I’m trying work out I’ll let you know.

Diet update

I barely mention food on my blog these days.  That’s because, touch wood, I don’t have many issues with food any more.  Note the word many, not none, because my Histamine Intolerance isn’t cured just managed and my Mast Cell Disease is here to stay.

I do still stick to a low histamine diet, if such a thing exists, and have been on it now for 3 years.  Being pesco-vegetarian I used to eat a lot of fish, including loads of tinned tuna, and a LOT of hard cheeses and I think it was these two items which were the biggest histamine load in my diet.  I no longer eat hard cheese (God I miss Cheddar and Parmesan!) but do still eat soft, immature cheeses like mozzarella, mascarpone and ricotta on a daily basis and am doing fine with them.

I still eat Salmon twice a week but instead of going for fresh I eat wild salmon which is gutted and frozen on the boat on which it’s caught (according to Tesco), thereby reducing its histamine content.  I have no problems with eating Salmon, though I steer clear of any other fish as I don’t know how old it is or when it was gutted.

The other food item I used to eat tons of is tinned tomatoes and, while there is no evidence that tomatoes are high histamine foods, I still avoid them simply because I’m scared not to!  My diet is working and I’m not tampering with it too much.

Having said all that, when I wrote my ‘Histamine in food: the evidence‘ post the lack of research or testing for histamine in most of the foods I avoided was startling, so I decided to re-introduce some of my favourite foods and see how it went.  For several months now I’ve been eating normal bread containing yeast, chocolate (so long as it didn’t contain soya lecithins as soya is proven to be high in histamine – see list at end of post), lemon juice and small amounts of products which contain vinegar like store bought mayonnaise.  I’m happy to report I’ve noticed no increase in my histamine symptoms whatsoever 🙂  And being able to eat normal bread when I’m out and about and chocolate when I’m hormonal has made my life a whole lot easier and happier!

I do still have a reaction to food sometimes but I’ve worked out it’s not usually the food per se, it’s how high my histamine bucket is on any particular day.  Stress creates histamine for me, so if I’m having a stressful day by evening my histamine bucket is fairly full and I can feel a bit weird after my dinner regardless of what food I eat.  Digestion produces histamine in and of itself, so just the very act of eating can tip my bucket over into a mild reaction.  It’s not nice, but I know it won’t kill me and will settle in an hour or two.

Hormones affect my histamine load substantially and I am always more reactive to everything the week leading up to my period, so again I can have mild reactions to anything I eat during that time regardless of what the food is.  As I’m in peri-menopause my hormones levels are all over the place, so I think I may be in for a bit of a rough histamine ride in the next 5 years as I finally go through The Change.

The seasons affect my histamine load too.  I am allergic to birch pollen, so in Spring when Birch trees are in bud my histamine load is high and I can again react to foods that wouldn’t normally bother me.

Having said all that, my reactions are nothing like they used to be.  I used to have pounding tachycardia, severe flushing, bad muscle spasms, nausea and retching, severe anxiety, head pain and just generally feeling awful to the point where I absolutely had to lie down.  This was followed by crippling exhaustion which took several hours to subside.  These days my reactions are much less intense thank God.  I still have tachycardia and my BP readings are about 150/90  with a pulse rate of around 90 (my normal readings are 115/57, pulse 65), which isn’t pleasant but isn’t life threatening.  My flushing is minimal and although I do still feel nauseous I don’t retch like I once did.  I feel anxious but it’s manageable, no head pain and I feel tense rather than having outright muscle spasms.  Having a reaction still isn’t nice but at least I know what it is and how to manage it (usually by having a soak in a warm bath followed by distracting myself with crocheting or doing something on the laptop).

As my histamine levels are generally quite low from following a low histamine diet, I can “cheat” on my foods now and again.  When I eat out, which is maybe twice a month, I tend to just choose whatever I like on the menu – cheese, tomatoes, fish, marmalade, sultanas and other dried fruit and anything else I fancy.  It’s very rare I react to anything until my histamine levels are already high from something else, eg the pollen season.  I know I’m lucky to be able to do this as I don’t have true allergies to foods – mine is definitely a histamine load problem and as long as my histamine bucket is kept low I can fill it now and again without it overflowing.

When I first started to reacting to foods I honestly thought I would die.  I had no idea what was going on and had no clue how to fix it.  Going on a low histamine diet was tortuous – I already had everything I ever wanted in life taken away by illness and meals were the one thing I still enjoyed – my dinner was something I looked forward to all day and having a warm mug of hot chocolate and a couple of biscuits before bed helped me sleep!  Having to quit my favourite foods felt like the last straw and I dreaded mealtimes.  On top of which, I could no longer eat ‘convenience’ or store bought products so had to cook every single thing from scratch, which took up every ounce of energy I possessed.  My entire life revolved around making food and then being terrified to eat it.

Fast forward 3 years and I now batch cook and freeze, which gives me a break from cooking every day.  I’ve found what I can, and can’t, eat and have managed to find substitutions like my red pepper sauce which means I can still make my favourite recipes.  I’ll be honest, they don’t taste as good but I’m used to them now and at least I’m enjoying my meals again.  I’ve even found naughty snacks that I really like, such as Jacobs Cracker Crisps that are terrible for me nutritionally but when I’m miserable and want to eat crap they taste delish 😉  And there is nothing nicer on a hot day than a dish of vanilla Haagen-Dazs ice cream topped with a chocolate Flake!

My intention is that this update gives those of you in the early stages of histamine intolerance hope that your symptoms can improve, that meals can still be enjoyable, that comfort food isn’t banned forever and that eating out isn’t a thing of the past.

For anyone who wants to try eating soy-free chocolate here are the products I’ve found which use sunflower lecithins instead of soya:
Quality Street mint flavour Matchmakers
Cadburys Flake
Cadbury Twirl Bites
Toffee Crisp Sharing Block
(all of these are also gluten free)

Weekly Roundup

GingerbreadI know I haven’t put any new recipes on the site in forever, but my regular readers will know that these days if I have the energy to try new foods I don’t have the time, and if I have the time I don’t have the energy.  However, I’ve been proper hormonal this past week (my period arrived early) and fancied something nice to nibble, so I made myself a Gingerbread, the recipe for which I’ve placed in the Desserts & Treats section of my blog.  If you don’t want a dark cake, use half treacle and half golden syrup but I personally love the richness of using all treacle.  If you want it spicier, just add more ginger.  It does do best if you wrap it in foil and leave it for 48 hours before eating, but I can never wait that long 😉  It also freezes well.

I also made some Cauliflower couscous this week, after being inspired by an ASDA advert on the telly.  I love the taste of cold raw Cauli, so just broke it into florets and whizzed it in the food processor until it looked the size and texture of Couscous, but you can add anything you like to it – spring onions, beans, roasted red peppers, seeds, nuts, herbs……..the sky’s the limit.  You could also mix it with my Chinese Honey Sauce (see Jams & Sauces section for recipe) for a hot n sour mixture.   I made a Spicey Bean Casserole to go with my Cauli and it was delish:

Cauliflower couscousI had another Orthotics appointment on Thursday to discuss my custom made insoles.  Despite modifications they’re still unusable, making the soles of my feet so painful after just an hour of use I can barely walk.  So it looks like I’m scuppered and we’re not going to be able to find insoles which correct my inturned knees and hips without causing problems elsewhere.  Bugger and double bugger.  So I’m sticking with the D30 insoles I can buy myself online, but I’m going to try and add a small arch support myself from previous ‘trial’ insoles I was given by Podiatry.  As my knees are now both painful, however, I’m using knees supports for strength and stabilization – the ones I’ve found best are from the Boots Pharmaceuticals range, as I can wear them over the top of my jeans and leggins and find them really comfortable.  The stretchy ones placed next to my skin cause my to Dermographism to go nuts and itch me so much I can’t wear them.

I had a bit of a scare on Saturday morning.  I was out walking Bertie when all of a sudden he sat down and starting licking his back leg.  It became obvious he couldn’t bear any weight on it and I had to carry him back to the car, which nearly killed me as he weighs 10 kilos (22lbs) and we were in the middle of nowhere.  I got him back to the house and had a good look at his foot but could find nothing wrong.  He was obviously in distress though and still couldn’t weight bare.  Ordinarily I’d give him some paracetomol and wait to see what happens, but on Saturdays the Vet shuts at lunchtime so I decided to have him looked at just in case it was something which needed treatment.  We drove the 20 minutes to the Surgery, with Bertie still licking his foot and holding it pitifully in the air, only for him to jump out of the car when we got there like nothing was wrong – I wanted to kill him!  The Vet thinks he’d been stung and just gave me some Calpol for the pain.  So our little sojourn this morning cost me £21 I didn’t have – the most expensive teaspoon of paracetomol in the known universe!

As I said at the start of my post, my period arrived all out of the blue this week on day 19 of my cycle.  I definitely think things are shifting again hormone-wise in recent months, which may be the reason I’m having more migraines than usual.  The good news is these short cycles tend to be slightly less painful than a regular cycle though this one has left me feeling very tired and muzzy headed.  I’ve been in peri-menopause for 4 years now but don’t seem to be making any progress towards actual Menopause.

I woke with some belting bruises on my legs this week, with not a clue how they’d been made.  I feel like the protagonist in the Princess & The Pea story, who sleeps on top of 20 mattresses only to wake black and blue the next morning because a pea had been placed under the bottom one.  Now I just need my Prince to come and marry me 😉

Ehlers-Danlos bruise