This post first appeared on TheTinLife on 20 April 2020.
“The body is your temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in.” — BKS Iyengar
Hi my lovelies!
I hope you’re safe, I hope you’re staying indoors, I hope you and your loved ones are well and healthy.
I’ve kicked and screamed my way through kitchens for much of my life. I always felt so bored, so inept, and so frustrated. I preferred to eat out or order in, way more than was necessary or healthy.
I’ve written earlier about eating raw vegan for a spell. I haven’t been fully raw for many years, and after numerous attempts of trying (and failing to maintain it), I now call myself veganish (no meat, dairy or eggs, though I still have honey). Rather, I’m “plant-based” (these names!) because vegan is a more political position to do with animal rights and, for now, I still wear/use wool, silk and leather.
Then an immunologist diagnosed me with histamine intolerance and I had to change my diet. Like, the day before we went into lockdown. Yikes. (More on histamine intolerance below.)
The only reason I’m doing this diet plan is because I did it under my doctor’s supervision for a week and felt noticeably better. I’ve had “sticky” eyes for 7-8 years, so I couldn’t open them in the morning without first using eye drops. Two days in, I was able to open my eyes without using anything, and it’s been that way since. Also: better sleep and better digestion.
A low histamine diet is an anti-inflammatory diet so it potentially benefits everyone, though of course, if there’s no need to omit various foods from your diet, then please don’t, as it’s best to eat as widely as possible.
All I can say is thank heavens I had transitioned over the past few years to a whole-food diet, because if I had to now make a dramatic switch in one go, I don’t know if I could have done it. At the same time, there’s something about being anyway kind of weirded out while in indefinite lockdown that somehow makes it easier to do something as insane as upending the way I eat.
I was aghast when my doctor first shared the list of restricted items, so brace yourself. It feels like when I learnt French in school and was given a list of masculine nouns and feminine nouns to memorise – there seems to be no rhyme or reason to this list; it’s one to simply become familiar with.
So, under the low histamine diet, I can no longer eat anything fermented (sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, vinegars, alcohol). Also out is anything processed or with preservatives, so anything that comes in a box, packet, can/tin or jar, except – bizarrely – capers in salt; however, dried spices, whole grains and pulses are mostly fine, though dried fruits is out. Also omitted are: bananas, citrus fruits, strawberries, papaya, pineapple, avocados, spinach, yeast, soy, sea vegetables, most nuts, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, chillies), black/green tea, and – boo hoo! – chocolate (cocoa in all forms).
Meat (or fish or seafood) has to be frozen (or cooked) immediately after being killed, as the bacteria that immediately begins to grow on it is supremely high in histamine. Seafood and pork are high histamine, regardless of precautions taken. Egg whites are problematic. And cheese, especially aged ones, is terrible for histamine sufferers.
Oh, and leftovers.
I haven’t managed that one yet because it’s really hard to cook teeny amounts, and many years of detesting cooking has programmed me to cook once and eat three times. But I’m trying. (The best thing to do is to freeze portions, and thaw quickly before reheating to prevent bacterial/histamine overgrowth.)
There’s always so much I want to say about food. Like how emotional eating can be for me (a topic which definitely needs its own post). Also: living with severe allergies all my life, and always being the person who couldn’t eat what other people took for granted, and dealing with food pushers (it’s a real thing, and it never stops being intensely annoying). Food has always been a minefield.
But being in lockdown has meant living without the option of eating out or ordering in – or even navigating the often socially awkward business of eating with others. I’ve had to adjust to cooking and eating only home-cooked whole-food meals, and it’s actually been… good.
The only junk-ish food I have access to is popcorn, and there was one day when that’s all I ate (like six bowls of it…). I had a work deadline and told myself it was the easiest way to get through it. Which was nonsense, of course, because the nutrients from vegetables and fruit would have helped me a lot more. But, anyway. I used this recipe for “perfect popcorn” by Elise Bauer on Simply Recipes. It was indeed perfect (all six bowls of it…).
The most tedious part of cooking for me is definitely the food prep. I don’t have access to organic produce in the lockdown, so I have to be extra diligent with washing and soaking the produce (sometimes in salt, and I’m told possibly also with a pinch of turmeric). Then washing again with drinking water (because tap water here is not potable). Then the peeling, de-seeding, chopping and storing.
It’s not a meditative practice for me, but once I stopped resisting it, it definitely felt easier. I listen to podcasts and do it over one-two days each week (because I’m slow and methodical).
The goal is to have all fruits and vegetables ready to eat or cook, so everything is chopped (including onions, ginger and garlic) and stored in glass containers in the fridge. Lettuce gets wrapped, while still a bit damp post washing, in cotton towels which I roll and stack. Curry leaves are best taken off the stem, washed, dried and stored sealed in the freezer. This is the only way I can make the cooking part bearable.
For decades, I subsisted on what can generously be called “meal assembly”. In college I’d stuff two turkey slices and one cheese into a pita pocket and be ready in seconds. I lived on pasta, bread and tomatoes for at least 10 years. I’d take a spoon to a can of sweetcorn and call it dinner. The most adventurous and laborious it got was layering hummus on sliced brown bread, and sprinkling chilli flakes over it.
I finally learnt to properly cook cook only about three years ago from reading Amelia Freer’s books. (I think Freer is to me is what Julia Child was to a generation of Americans, who felt they at last got a key to grown-up-ness.) Freer – coming at food as a nutritionist rather than a trained chef – made cooking appealing with her relaxed approach. I followed her third book, Nourish and Glow, which outlined a ten-day meal plan (I wrote about it here). Though it required a great deal more time than I’d ever spent in a kitchen, I was amazed – first of all – that I actually did it; but also that everything tasted incredible, that it was a lot of food, yet I felt fantastic, and my skin/energy/sleep/weight improved.
It’s thanks to Freer that I have anything vaguely resembling confidence in the kitchen. I also obsessively make her spiced seed mix all the time and have it with practically every meal, especially now that nuts are off my menu.
My low histamine version of Amelia Freer’s spice seed mix • 80g (3/4 cup) shelled pumpkin seeds • 20g (2 tbs) hemp seeds • 20g (2 tbs) flaxseeds • 20g (2 tbs + ½ tsp) white sesame seeds • 10g (1½ tbs) chia seeds • 10g (1 tbs) black sesame seeds • 10g (1 tbs) fennel seeds • 10g (1 tbs) cumin seeds Total: about 180g (makes about a mug’s worth) I mix up whatever is available, but have tended to settle on these ratios when I can. Sunflower seeds are high histamine and the only ones I avoid. For flavour, add half a teaspoon each of coriander powder and amchoor (dried mango powder – it gives it a mildly tart taste) – more options below.* And a teaspoon of olive oil to make it all stick together. Mix well. Spread out in a baking dish and pop in the oven at 160°C/340°F for about 20 minutes, stirring once halfway if you remember, and checking the last few minutes in case they start to burn. Cool down and store in a glass container in fridge. Use about a tablespoon on salads, though I also eat a few spoonfuls as a snack. I add it to really everything – steamed/roasted vegetables, lentils, rice, and it’s delicious on soups. If you don’t have an oven, Freer also has a version of the recipe in one of her books to do it on the stove (it involves dry frying them but I think in stages, as some seeds can burn). *If you don’t have histamine issues, you can add chilli powder, which goes especially well. I change the spices around every time – curry powder (homemade mix, without chilli), or dried herbs, or za’atar. You can even keep them plain with just salt and oil. I’ve actually roasted it without salt or oil, and it still works. So it’s really a magical recipe.
I impressed myself by having the foresight the day before lockdown began to buy celery (unavailable since), and made vegetable stock in the slow cooker for the first time. I added a bunch of celery stalks (without leaves), 5-6 carrots (peeled if not organic), an onion chopped in half (with skin), a head of garlic chopped in half (with skin), and a few peppercorns and two bay leaves. Plus enough water to reach the top (mine made about 3 litres/5 pints). I cooked it on low for 10 hours. Then I strained and stored it in the fridge for a week (it can also be frozen, and if so, best stored in separate portions).
This allowed me to make a lot of easy soup. I roasted beetroot, then peeled and cubed it to store it in the fridge. I’d take about ⅓ to ½ of a medium size beetroot (cubed), add a cup of the stock, and blend them together. Then I’d sauté some minced garlic in a saucepan until the aroma released (my favourite smell in the world), then add the blended soup to heat it up.
When the vegetable stock finished, I made soup in the slow cooker with carrots, onions, garlic, ginger, salt, pepper and plain water. I blended it after it was done and cooled slightly, and it actually came out delicious. All this without adding coconut cream or even stock.
As the weeks have passed under lockdown, I’ve found the most valuable fresh produce to keep are root vegetables, which stay hardy the longest, as well as a steady supply of onions and garlic (both are good prebiotics), and whatever fruit I can get that’s low histamine (apples contain quercetin – especially beneficial for histamine and inflammation). Also leafy greens, with romaine being the most robust and tasty (grown hydroponically at a nearby farm, which is not as nutritious as soil-grown, but the reliable accessibility has kept me eating greens far more regularly than I ever have before, and I now can’t live without it).
I used to get annoyed with having so many unused spices at home (often purchased because of one odd recipe – and before you know it, there’s a whole cupboard of the damn stuff). But now I’m very grateful, I have to say. It’s been the most handy for changing up the flavours when I have roasted pumpkin for the nth time. I make up small batches of spice mixes.
The most tasty has been a 5-spice mix (called paach phorong in Bengali): • 1 tbs each of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, brown mustard seeds, and nigella sativa seeds (also called black cumin seeds, or kalonji) • ½ tsp fenugreek seeds. This mix will keep in a sealed container for a month at least. Cumin is flagged for its high histamine (as are a few others), but my doctor says the portions of spices eaten are so miniscule, it won’t have any terrible affect. A teaspoon of the spice mix can be added into the actual cooking, but I often temper about a teaspoon of it in a teaspoon of oil. After it starts to crackle and releases its aroma, pour the whole thing over a salad or cooked vegetable dish just before serving.
I wasn’t able to eat any pulses – lentils, chickpeas, beans – for a long time because I’d get terrible bloating and abdominal pain. My new doctor gave me a de-worming treatment (as in, to get worms out of the digestive tract! I know! I’d never done it before, but apparently helpful if you live somewhere tropical). He said to try lentils after that, which I did, and now I can finally eat them without bloating or pain – hurrah!
Just to be safe, though, I wash the lentils in (at least) three changes of water, then soak them overnight, and then wash them with water again before cooking to reduce the gassy element as much as possible. I have tried only split mung (yellow) beans so far, which are considered the most tolerated and least gassy. I haven’t yet attempted other beans (some of which I know I’m allergic to) but this feels like a gift.
The last recipe I’ll share here has been the most comforting one to me, especially as it comes from my mother. This is for a dish called kitchuri, which is famous all over South Asia (also called kitchari or kichdi). There are endless variations of it. Ayurveda even includes it in their fasting protocol as it’s nourishing and healing, while giving your digestive system a break. It’s quick to cook too, especially if you’ve soaked the lentils for a few hours, or overnight as I do.
My mother also finds lentils tricky to digest, so her ratio of lentils to rice reflects that (it’s traditionally 1:1). Though brown rice is often considered healthier, my doctor said for me to only have white rice as it’s better for my sensitive digestive tract, and this is something Ayurveda promotes too. White Basmati rice was the only thing I could find the day before the lockdown, so that’s what I’m using. Different rice may need different water ratios. Different (or a mix of) lentils can also be used.
This portion will make 4-6 portions. I usually halve this recipe and it lasts me for three meals. I like to have this on its own (with the spiced seed mix…) but of course you can add other vegetables as side dishes, or an omelette if you eat eggs.
My mother's kitchuri recipe • 1 cup white Basmati rice, washed/stirred several times until the water stops being cloudy, then drained • ½ cup split yellow mung lentils, washed several times and ideally soaked for a few hours or overnight, then drained • 2 tsp chopped onions • 1 tsp minced garlic • ¼ tsp cumin seeds (I sometimes also add ¼ tsp mustard seeds and a few curry leaves) • ¼ tsp ground turmeric • ¼ tsp salt (Himalayan or sea preferable) • 1 tbs oil (I use olive oil as I do for everything, but coconut, mustard or sesame are also good) • (If histamine not an issue: add 1 green chilli sliced lengthwise and de-seeded) Mix all the ingredients really well together. Then add 3 cups of water. Put the whole thing into a pan on the stove over medium heat, with lid partially covered. Once it reaches a boil (in about 5 minutes), turn the flame to low, cover fully with the lid, and cook until the rice is cooked and soft (about another 5-10 minutes). Watch out that it doesn’t get too dry and sticky to the pot. Once cooked, you can keep it standing in the pot for a few more minutes with the flame off. I tend to serve it immediately.
One last note: my food consumption has often been mindless. Decades of eating out means I also normalised giant restaurant portions. Even though I’ve never considered myself a foodie (still don’t), I thought it my right to celebrate food by equalling it with rich, opulent meals like, all the time.
So it’s been very sobering that since the lockdown began, my mother and I are constantly checking on each other’s access to groceries, because that’s become precarious for both of us. And this feels utterly surreal. Food had always been abundantly available to me. But not so any more.
Being able to eat healthily under these conditions feels triumphant. I have a newfound and deep respect for real food. As nourishment. And – with an understanding of histamine – how it can help heal me or, indeed, cause me grief.
As for portion sizes – I read somewhere that we should eat not until we are full, but until we are no longer hungry. This happens quite easily (our stomach is actually only the size of our fist).
I’ve had to confront the effort it takes to get food to my plate in the first place. Not just on my end to prepare it, but also the huge effort on part of farmers to grow it, as well as the whole supply chain that enables me to purchase it.
So while the lockdown has been a trial in many ways, it’s also been humbling. Every time I’m able to buy groceries, even with many items not available, I feel as if I’ve won the lottery. The fact that I then get to (not have to) prepare it and eat its wholehearted goodness is hugely rewarding. It feels really, really good to value food for the treasure it is.
If it's financially feasible, there are many charities set up for feeding the hungry. I also like to distribute groceries to the staff in my building who work long hours to keep us safe and clean.
“Happiness is the joy we feel striving for our potential.” — Shawn Achor
Histamine Intolerance: The Cause of Unexplained Health Symptoms?
Sorry, this is already a super long post, but I did want to write a bit more about histamine intolerance (HIT). This is also similar to MCAD (Mast Cell Activation Disorder), sometimes also called MCAS (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome).
Our bodies naturally produce the neurotransmitter histamine, which is essential for our body’s functioning in correct doses. If we imbibe too much histamine from our foods, or if our body doesn’t have enough enzymes (including one called DAO) to manage the histamine, or a few other reasons, histamine can overwhelm our system. And the resulting symptoms can be stunning in their range and effect.
Various things that had both baffled me as well as overwhelmed me throughout my life were probably caused by excess histamine. I had severe depression and anxiety, along with terrible insomnia and excruciating headaches. I had multiple gynaecological issues, excruciating period pain as well as a mysterious abdominal pain that resulted in surgery after surgery after surgery. I once even had an anaphylactic shock, though I couldn’t pin it to a specific food I’d eaten just before it (which is what would have happened if it had been an allergy). I’ve had super severe eczema. Oh, and sticky eyes (plus various recurring eye trouble). Not to mention all my allergies, which are a related but separate issue from histamine.
Other symptoms can include fatigue, nasal and congestion issues, hives, psoriasis, gastrointestinal problems, low blood pressure, panic attacks, tissue swelling, and more (possibly also including diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s and even cancer). It really reaches to every part of our bodies and, depending on where our particular weaknesses are, it’s likely to show up there.
It affects 1% of the population, though I’ve also heard it’s chronically under-diagnosed and more likely to affect nine to 17% of the population.
HIT is not something to self-diagnose, so it’s important to work with a doctor. There aren’t any medical tests for it, and some doctors don’t even believe in it. The only “treatment” is really eliminating high-histamine foods for at least a month and seeing if the symptoms improve. If they do, then it means you have histamine issues.
The general protocol is to then slowly add back restricted items one at a time and monitor the body’s reaction. (My doctor is also healing my gut in the mean time.) Imagine a bucket inside us; too much histamine will make it overflow, but once it’s cleared, smaller quantities may not cause problems. So while a food allergy means never, ever being able to have the item, histamine means “maybe”, depending on the circumstances. So it’s not a life sentence.
Because I’m a mad researcher (which can be dangerous when it’s just me left alone with Doctor Google), I’ve been digging deep (but also checking with my doctor). The people I found on the net are those who’ve often suffered from this themselves and, outraged by the lack of information, some have even left their previous careers to dedicate themselves to spreading the word. (Honestly, if my doctor didn’t tell me about it, I still wouldn’t believe it.)
I’m part of the group that was told by doctors at some point that we must be imagining this, and referred for psychiatric help. So I’m really grateful to know that I’m not crazy, and that there’s a reason for these unexplained (and seemingly unrelated) symptoms, and – most of all – that I can do something about it.
The foods I’m eating are: fresh produce (whatever is seasonal and available, barring the restricted items), grains except wheat, lentils (see above), spices, seeds. I eat a lot of fruit, which makes up for the fact I can’t eat chocolate. Fibre (found in all fruits and vegetables, plus grains and pulses) is my best friend. I have nettle tea (which is meant to help clear out excess histamine) and chamomile tea daily.
The most thorough list of histamine-containing foods is provided by the Swiss Interest Group Histamine Intolerance (SIGHI). The English version of the list is here.
Yasmina Ykelenstam had 56 symptoms and consulted endless doctors until she understood what the issue really was. Formerly a journalist and producer for CNN and BBC, she left her career to become the Low Histamine Chef. She wrote multiple digital books to help others, before tragically dying young of cancer. Her work carries on, though, on the website Healing Histamine.
Tony Wrighton presents a podcast called Zestology, and he periodically interviews guests about HIT as he himself suffers from it, and changing his diet dramatically improved his life. Helpful episodes include Ep #216 with Dr Janice Joneja, Ep #234 with Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, and Ep #257 with Beth O’Hara.
There are several books on the subject too. If I read any that I find valuable, then I’ll update it here.
Want better health?