No, this is not some newfangled fad diet that I am putting myself on in hopes of resurrecting my 18 year-old body. Far from it. Evidently, I have acquired an potentially life threatening allergy to meat...all because I got bit by a tick.
(Cue the "ticked off" jokes now...like I've not been hearing them.)
Behold, the lowly Lone Star Tick. This little bugger is prevalent across the southeastern United States, and I'm betting you never really thought twice if you got bit by one, other than "eewww, tick!" Oh, sure, vague musings about Lyme disease may have flitted across your mind, but I'll bet you really thought that nothing was going to happen to you.
Then, one day, you eat a ham sandwich for breakfast, and several hours later, while on the phone with a customer, your throat starts to feel tight, and you have a bit of trouble swallowing.
You wonder what the hell is happening and glug down some liquid Benadryl and start trying to determine if you need to go to the hospital or not, because you might be going into anaphylactic shock...and you have no idea why.
Things calm down after a bit, and you don't really think much more about it, but it does trigger you to make that yearly appointment with your allergist, which was due to happen in December anyway, so a little early is not a bad thing.
While at the allergist, you mention this weird pseudo-anaphylactic incident, that you ate a ham sandwich, and she immediately asks if you've been bit by a tick this summer. Of course you have. You live in the South, you have dogs, there are trees and shrubbery in your yard, and you go outside. Then, she says those 7 words that you aren't really sure you heard correctly at first: "you have an allergy to red meat."
You goggle at her like a prize-winning goldfish and squawk out "what?!" And, she repeats it, a little slower, You. Have. An. Allergy. To. Red Meat.
Here's the quick and dirty explanation according to researchers at the University of Virginia:
When certain people are bitten by ticks or chiggers, the bite appears to set off a chain of reactions in the body. One of these reactions is the production of an allergic class of antibody that binds to a carbohydrate present on meat called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, also known as alpha-gal. When a person with the alpha-gal antibody eats mammalian meat, the meat triggers the release of histamine. Histamine is a compound found in the body that causes allergic symptoms like hives, itching and, in the worst case, anaphylaxis (a reaction that leads to sudden weakness, swelling of the throat, lips and tongue, difficulty breathing and/or unconsciousness).
According to my allergist, the key weirdness factor in this is the delayed anaphylactic reaction of the alpha-gal. It can be hours after you ingest the meat...and evidently the onset of it can be delayed for months as well, which appears to have happened in my case. (This makes it different from most food allergies that cause a response pretty much on contact.) I grilled various meats all summer after being bit, and went to the beach for a week and ate nothing but bacon and eggs for breakfast every damn day without any issues whatsoever. And, then I have a ham sandwich.
There is a test to find out the level of alpha-gal and how you react to certain meats, and I popped positive on it. My number is fairly low, but the risk factor is there, and enough of a concern that I have an Epipen and instructions to not eat beef, pork, lamb, venison, bison, etc. Turkey, chicken, and seafood are fine...and no matter what the National Pork Council tells you, pork is definitely NOT the "other white meat." Also, most people are not affected by milk, cheese, and butter, so those are probably okay to consume.
The only known treatment for this condition is to avoid mammalian (red) meat altogether. The possible good news is that it might be recoverable from...I have to wait a year and be re-tested to see if I still have alpha-gal in my blood. And, also avoid being bit by a Lone Star tick. Being bitten again can bring the reaction back in a more severe form.
The allergist said there are about 35 patients in her practice that have alpha-gal, and they deal with it in various ways. Several of them were of the "oh hell no, I'm not going to stop eating meat" persuasion, until they had a reaction out of the blue and came crawling back to tell about it.
Honestly, I'm on the fence about it...I find it hard to believe that I'm at that much risk, because I've been carnivoring it up all summer with nary an issue. And, then, there's that damn ham sandwich and the blood test results. Part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and say to hell with it and bring on the bacon. The rule-following part says "you are crazy to even risk it. Shut up and eat the turkey bacon!" (Note: I have never ever ever said anything nice about turkey bacon, and I'm not going to start.)
So, I'm putting on my big girl panties and attempting to go without red meat for the year and hope that I can order up all the Omaha Steaks in the world come next November. This is going to be extremely tough, and I figured I should write about it so I can sort of keep my own sanity. (Plus, blog abandonment guilt was starting to get to me, even though I'm really doing it mostly for my own and Lin's amusement.)
Bring on the chicken! Bring on the turkey! Hell, this might be the year that I actually try a TurDuckEn! (Yeah, but I'm not deboning all those birds myself; I'll get one already stuffed.)
Cross your fingers and wish me luck that I make it through the year. I'm going to miss you, Bacon, so very very much.