Alpha-Gal Allergy

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Alicia Woodward

Sometimes the irony in life can smack you in the face. Like the fact that I’ve developed an allergy to meat when I live on a farm that produces grass-fed beef cows. My doctor was smiling kindly as he showed me the IgE antibody numbers and explained the health benefits of eschewing meat. I was listening but was less than enthused, thinking about my food issues: gluten sensitivity, lactose intolerance … and now this.

This is the alpha-gal allergy, a hypersensitivity with potential anaphylaxis to mammalian meat—beef, pork, lamb, venison. Defined by researchers at the University of Virginia around 2008, it is caused by tick bites. Alpha-gal is a growing menace in the Southeast where I live. It behaves like no other food allergy in that it reacts to a carbohydrate (not a protein) and its symptoms (they vary—gastrointestinal distress, hives, itching) are delayed. They often develop 4 to 6 hours after ingestion. So the juicy steak you had for dinner can wake you up in the middle of the night like a three-alarm fire.

My husband is a very good sport about the gluten-free diet and Lactaid milk but this new dietary blip has him stymied. A committed carnivore, he defines each day by the meat he eats for dinner. Tuesday is ground beef, Wednesday is pork chops, Thursday is pot roast…. Right now, there are well over 100 pounds of grass-fed hamburger in the freezer. This and the fact that his cows are healthy, happy and treated humanely are a huge source of pride for him.

After my alpha-gal diagnosis, I walked out to the pasture to commune with the cows and do some honest self-assessment. Before moving to the farm, I used to pile Styrofoam trays of fresh meat into my grocery cart without a second thought. Now standing in the field with these sweet-eyed creatures, it wasn’t so easy to picture them on my dinner plate.

I’m not ready to be a vegetarian (there’s still fish and fowl to enjoy) but I’m reminded how dietary issues can force a shift in thinking.

As we round the corner and get into the holiday season, I’ll be thinking about all this and creatively expanding my personal menu.

As usual, my extended family will be at my place to enjoy a delicious, gluten-free Thanksgiving. (I’ll be using recipes from this issue. You’ll love them—they’re amazing!) As we sit around the table, we’ll focus on our blessings and talk about the multiple reasons to be grateful.

I’m already thankful that the holiday revolves around poultry. I can’t wait to look deep into my husband’s eyes and say those three little words: Pass the turkey.