Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 27, 2014

Juggling food allergies

Earl family learns to live without gluten, peanuts, tree nuts and tomatoes

By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Cooking at the Earl house sometimes gets a little complicated.

On spaghetti night, Kimberly Earl can’t use normal noodles or tomato sauce. She can’t fix her kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and the only way the family can order pizza is if she eats something else.

Three of the four members of their family suffer from food allergies.

Earl’s son, now 7, was diagnosed with anaphylaxis to peanuts and all tree nuts when he was a year old. You only find that one out the hard way, she said.

Then her daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in October 2012 at the age of 8, which was followed about one month later with a diagnosis of celiac disease. That’s a severe allergy to the gluten found in wheat, rye and barley.

Celiac disease often goes hand-in-hand with type 1 diabetes, the mother said.

“This was a big learning experience, not only counting every carb she eats and all that goes along with diabetes, but also now avoiding a food that is such a staple in the American diet,” Earl said.

Then after her daughter’s diagnosis, her son started complaining about stomach pains and developed severe eczema. The culprit, she said, was celiac disease.

The whole family went gluten free after that, for obvious reasons, she said.

Just a few months ago Earl herself found out she was likely allergic to tomatoes.

After learning to live with all of the other allergies, though, hers seemed pretty minor, she said.

The Earl clan sat around a table at McAlister’s Deli on a recent afternoon. It’s one of their favorite spots in town, though they’re limited in what they can order these days.

McAlister’s doesn’t offer gluten-free options like a growing number of restaurants, Earl said. Instead, the kids choose foods that are naturally gluten free.

Nine-year-old Whitney usually chooses the salad there. Collin opts for the nachos, but what he really wants is the pizza.

In fact, their pizza is what he misses most of all, he said.

“Do you know how to make gluten-free pizza?” he asked.

The peanut allergy doesn’t even faze him these days. He’s overly cautious when choosing foods to eat. If he even thinks there might be peanuts in it, he stays away, his mom said.

It doesn’t disappoint him, though.

“I don’t even care about peanuts,” he said.

There was an incident at an Indiana Pacers game. Someone nearby ate peanuts and threw the shells on Collin and his dad.

Collin started wheezing. But someone with the Pacers allowed the two of them to move closer to the floor where they’d be safe. It worked out pretty nicely, Tony Earl said, with a laugh.

It’s definitely the gluten allergy that has posed the greatest challenges for the family, Kimberly Earl said. It’s also a challenge to get people to believe the kids’ celiac disease is real.

According to a recent New York Times story, a 2012 Mayo Clinic report estimated that only 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease and another 18 million people – or six percent of the population – have gluten sensitivity.

The story also pointed out, though, that 11 percent of households in the country report buying gluten-free food.

Kimberly Earl said that leads to assumptions that everyone buying gluten-free food is just part of some fad.

“They think I’m just jumping on the bandwagon,” she said.

That happened recently at the grocery store. The cashier told her she was wasting her money buying all of that gluten-free food. He was really nasty to her, she said.

She assured him she wouldn’t buy it if she didn’t have to. He’s right, though, the mother said. Gluten-free products are far more expensive.

It’s $6 for a loaf of gluten-free bread that’s half the size of a regular loaf.

She doesn’t always buy the bread, but she wants her children to be able to have sandwiches like everyone else sometimes.

The family tries to eat a lot of foods that are naturally gluten-free, like eggs, rice, meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

She wants her children to be able to have their favorite foods, though, like spaghetti and macaroni and cheese. But the family pays a price for it.

Kimberly Earl said she spends about $220 a week on groceries for their family of four.

The Earls aren’t looking for people’s sympathy.

Kimberly Earl said she’s able to homeschool her children, which helps a lot.

“I’m blessed to be able to stay home with them to keep them healthy and safe and balanced,” she said.

She admits that it would be harder to manage Collins’ peanut allergy if he had to go to school every day, where there’s a greater chance of cross-contamination. The family doesn’t shy away from public places, though. The children are both active.

Both kids play piano. Whitney does competitive dance. They are involved in a drama production every spring, and this year Whitney has a leading part. They ice skate and Collin plays baseball and takes golf lessons in the summer. Both are active in church activities and the local homeschool group KASH.

Just by looking them, you’d never know they have food allergies. Kimberly Earl said she tries to make sure the allergies don’t take over their lives.

“While all of this sounds a bit overwhelming, my kids are very happy and otherwise very healthy and very active,” she said. “It can throw a wrench in things, but I guess it’s not the end of the world.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune Life & Style editor, can be reached at 765-454-8585, at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LindseyZiliak.