Cow Eggs & Chicken Milk
By Michael Westgate, NMT
Ever since high school, I’ve struggled with tinnitus (constant ringing in my ears), fatigue, brain fog, insomnia, anxiety attacks, and chronically achy joints, especially in my low back and jaw. When I was 20, on the advice of my mother and stepfather, I started working with a San Francisco nutritionist who was recommended by a trusted friend.
I had just returned from traveling in Western Europe and was preparing to start my undergraduate studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. I was so weighed down by these physical challenges I was worried I would not be able to handle the demands of work and study.
Why did I feel so bad?
This is how I began a fascinating process of healing. I learned that I am allergic to gluten, dairy and many other foods such as peanuts, soy, etc. I learned that I had what was then called a “cerebral allergy,” meaning that these foods didn’t just negatively affect my body but also my brain.
The nutritionist instructed me to do a fast, followed by an elimination diet, where I would remove all the known allergic foods and then add them back gradually to gauge my reaction to them. Although I was working part-time and going to school full-time, I was so desperate to feel better and so scared I could not make the most of my college experience, I decided to do whatever it took and followed the program faithfully.
What I didn’t expect were the challenges I encountered when I ate at restaurants. I’d explain to the server that I had severe allergies to certain foods and would need help in navigating the menu. Since my two worst allergies were to gluten and dairy, I asked about them first.
How can an egg be dairy?
Early on I started to notice an odd pattern. Often, when I asked about dairy, the server said, “Yes, there’s egg in this dish,” and I would say, “Ok, but an egg isn’t dairy.” And they would respond by either looking confused or by arguing with me about its designation. Since I personally had never seen a cow lay an egg, and I understood from high school biology that chickens are related to reptiles and cows are mammals, this seemed odd to me. For some reason, though, the absurdity of considering “eggs are dairy” was not apparent to most people and I wanted to understand why.
My parents lived what is called a “hippie lifestyle,” so from ages three to seven, this included living in the boondocks of southern Oregon on a forty-acre farm/commune. I therefore wasn’t exposed to the same influences as most American kids. One of the most distinctive lifestyle differences was our food. We grew as much of our own food as possible, and we all helped with a large garden and fruit trees as well as chickens, goats, and one cow.
I knew firsthand that food comes from the ground and from animals, not the grocery store. I ate corn off the cob while standing next to the towering corn stalks. I picked raspberries off the bush and popped them into my mouth. I gathered chicken eggs that were still warm from mother hen sitting on them all night.
My food associations were about as different as you can get from the average American kid in suburbia. So when my dad decided to move us from the commune to Ashland, Oregon, a small town near the southern border, I was finally introduced to the culture of mainstream America.
I started first grade in Ashland and was exposed to many new and somewhat alien things: my grade school building had hardly any windows and my classmates brought lunches to school that were made of weird stuff like Wonder Bread and baloney. Most of them had televisions in their homes; I did not. None of their homes had a garden, just lawns. Some of them had a swimming pool (highly chlorinated).
One day in school we were introduced to a chart that showed the “The Five Food Groups.” (Please refer to the image below. I couldn’t locate the original food chart that was presented to me in grade school but this chart, created in 1998, is very similar.) It showed us how much and what kinds of foods we should eat, and, as you can see, it designates eggs as…well, dairy.
Why did the USDA categorize eggs as dairy? Because they are found in the dairy products section at most grocery stores?
Whatever the reason, for thirty years the burning question in my mind has been, “Why didn’t people see this error? Eggs don’t come from a cow and therefore aren’t dairy.”
Why we believe what we believe
“Cow Eggs and Chicken Milk” is a reminder to me that all of us are prone to believe some things without questioning them. Many of us learned back when we were kids that eggs are dairy—and perhaps some of us still accept this as fact, even though in 2005 the USDA replaced the outdated pyramid food chart with an image of a food plate. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/
The mechanics of the “eggs are dairy” association comes from what is called “imprinting.” Our first impressions of people, ideas, and things are imprinted on us and therefore have a lasting effect on our perception. In fact, first impressions are very hard to change, since we tend to invest in and stick with what we first perceive. Re-examining impressions is a time- and energy-consuming process, so as a default, most of us avoid doing this.
I didn’t accept the assumption that “eggs are dairy” because my early personal experience with chickens, cows, and eggs overrode the information I saw in the food pyramid chart. I was not imprinted with this concept. It wasn’t that I was smarter than people who learned eggs are dairy, I was just lucky. The real challenge is to be able to spot these errors when the bias is built in, particularly if your culture supports it.
Blind spots and epiphanies
We all have blind spots in our knowledge, and my work with my San Francisco nutritionist was no exception. Even though I followed her advice to the letter, after a few years on her program I experienced some significant setbacks in my health. It took me a long time to unravel why the vegan diet she told me to follow was not successful for me. I now know that because I have an autoimmune disease, the best diet for me is the “autoimmune paleo diet” and that many foods in her vegan protocol were actually making me sick.
When I told her what foods worked best for me, she didn’t agree with my choices, so I decided to look for someone else to work with. This was my first experience of how even an expert can sometimes lead you down the wrong path.
As a result of this and other experiences, I have developed an approach to health challenges that I find essential for getting sustainable results. I want to share this with you here:
First, I’ve had to face my own resistance to change—that hard-wired tendency in humans to stick with the status quo and resist doing anything that rocks the boat both personally and with your “tribe.” We all struggle with our tendencies to self-sabotage, procrastinate and avoid doing what is best for our lives, and I am no exception. I’ve learned that this resistance never goes away, but with practice, I can outsmart it. I consider the skills needed to overcome resistance to be very crucial in dealing successfully with health challenges, and I will examine this subject in detail in a future blog.
Second, I’ve had to find effective ways to sift through my preconceived ideas and biases and learn why they are blocking my ability to detect and fully understand information that can lead to viable and sustainable solutions for my challenges.
Third, I started to understand how prevalent misperceptions about food can be. I had to come up with a strategy to navigate situations where I was counting on other people’s knowledge and/or services that would impact my health. I learned that if I’m not 100% responsible in determining which foods are safe for me, for my body, inevitably I will start feeling sick.
When eating out, this includes:
- Investigating menu options online and calling ahead to see if they can accommodate my needs.
- Choose restaurants that have simple offerings like steamed vegetables and non-marinated grilled meats. Restaurants that serve “fusion cuisine” are off limits because there are often dozens of ingredients in every dish.
- Any sign of exasperation or negative attitude about my requests by the management or wait staff are a red flag, and my best policy is to go somewhere else.
My alternative upbringing coupled with a lifelong battery of health challenges has motivated me to examine what I regard as real and what I see driven by mistaken perception. Concerning foods that I can and cannot eat, if I had been only uncomfortable rather than miserable, I don’t think I would have become so determined in my search for answers.
This has also motivated me to create this blog. I aim to search out various kinds of misunderstandings, primarily relating to health challenges, and discuss them in future blogs. It is my hope that you can learn about and utilize the information I share with you so your own health and wellbeing is what you want it to be.
I look forward to your thoughts and responses to this article! I’d love to hear from you!