While eating a healthier diet is a good first step, the sad reality today is that many of us react poorly to certain foods. This can result in a wide range of symptoms, often difficult to medically diagnose, and seemingly unrelated to our digestive systems. For example, when I was a child my wheat allergy manifested as poor weight gain, bloody noses, and a weak immune system. Diverse reactions make it difficult to determine if food related issues are behind the symptoms or not.
Many people with food sensitivities can eventually recover, although there’s certainly no guarantee. It’s essential to avoid problematic foods to give your body the best chance to heal! As your health improves and your gut heals, you may find you can handle these foods again.
Food Allergy Testing
The easiest way to determine what foods your body is sensitive to is by taking a food allergy test. You will need to work with a doctor to do so, these tests can’t be independently ordered. Your blood will be drawn and analyzed to check for antibodies to common foods. If your body is producing antibodies to food substances, it is reacting to them.
Note that if you’ve already removed certain foods from your diet, taking this test will not indicate any antibody presence to those foods. If you aren’t eating something, your body can’t react to it, so the test won’t be conclusive.
Additionally, these tests are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. The cheaper, but more difficult, option is to try an elimination diet, as explained below.
Elimination diets can help you determine if you are reacting to specific foods. Basically, this diet involves removing suspected foods completely from your diet for one month to see if your symptoms abate. If you’ve improved in how you feel, there’s a good chance you are reacting to one or more of the foods you eliminated. You can then gradually reintroduce foods into your diet one at a time to see how they affect you.
After eliminating foods for one month, select one food you had removed and test it by eating a small amount. If you experience a noticeable reaction within 2 days, consider it off the table; your body is not handling it well. Otherwise, if all went well and you felt fine, incorporate it back into your diet for 2 weeks. If you experience the return of negative symptoms in this time, you are sensitive to this food and should avoid it. If you had no bad reactions, keep this item in your diet and trial the next one. By the end, you will have discovered which foods cause you problems and which are fine.
How do you determine which foods to eliminate? This is a hard question to answer because there are so many foods people can have problems with. If you remove everything from your diet, it’ll be hard to find anything to eat. Don’t remove enough, and you might miss out on discovering food you react to. It’s quite possible you don’t have any food sensitivities at all! Since there isn’t an easy answer to this question, the following guidance may help you decide how to proceed.
First, if you have relatives who react poorly to certain foods, prioritize eliminating these from your diet. Any foods you already suspect give you trouble should be added to your list. Next you should strongly consider eliminating the top 5 foods that cause people problems: gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and eggs. There are many other foods you could be reacting to, too many to list, though sensitivities to these are not as prevalent. Stop adding items when you think you have enough for your elimination diet.
Sugar deserves a special mention here. If you regularly consume extremely large quantities of sugar, 45g or more per day, you should seriously consider avoiding it as a part of your elimination diet. To give you context, 45g is about 1/4 cup of sugar, 12 oz of soda, 1 1/2 cups of vanilla yogurt, 2 cups of orange juice, or 4 tablespoons of jelly. Whole fruit is not included in the count. Eating orange segments is much easier for the body to handle than drinking orange juice. Over-consumption of sugar contributes to maladies caused by fungal infections as well as causing a host of other symptoms. If you don’t consume much sugar, ideally less than 90g per week, you shouldn’t need to eliminate it.
And now to condense all that into a list you can follow along with:
- Known food sensitivities from family members
- Foods you suspect you have trouble with
- Sugar – corn syrup, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar, agave syrup, honey, maple syrup, fruit juice, etc.
- Foods known to cause issues for people
- Top 5 most common:
- Gluten (wheat, rye, barley)
- Less common:
- Canola oil
- Vegetables from the Solanum family – tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, tomatillos
- Tree nuts (especially almonds, pecans, and pistachios)
- High oxalate foods – spinach, rhubarb, beets, sorrel, chard, chocolate, whole grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, tea, spices such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cumin, coriander, ginger, and turmeric
- Artificial dyes
- Top 5 most common:
Despite what some people claim, none of the foods listed above are bad. Clearly if you react to certain foods, those are a problem for you and should be avoided for now. These foods can be part of a healthy diet for someone who doesn’t react to them. That said, there are reasons why certain foods top the charts. Reasons that are too involved to go into here and will be discussed elsewhere.
For many people, the amount of problematic foods they ingest matters. They might be able to tolerate low doses fine, only when consuming larger quantities do symptoms return. In addition, for those with multiple food sensitivities, there can be interplay between the foods. Some people find they can eat dairy if they avoid wheat and vice-versa. Yet, other people violently react to even the smallest contaminant. Once you know what you react to, you can figure out what your boundaries are.
These symptoms seem to be more commonly associated with food sensitivities, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. You might be reacting to foods yet experience completely different symptoms. At the same time, just because a symptom is listed here does not mean it’s being caused by a reaction to food. However, if you suffer from one of the below symptoms, you may want to give greater weight to trying an elimination diet in order to see if your symptoms abate.
- GI problems (constipation, diarrhea, bloating, ulcers, abdominal pains, etc.)
- Auto-immune disorders
- Brain fog
- Lethargy & fatigue
- Skin rashes
- Scratchy throat
Food allergy vs reaction
The terminology can get a little confusing at times, so let’s just clarify this. By definition, an allergy is an immunological reaction the body has towards something, in this case, certain foods. Typically this immune response involves the body attacking itself in some way. By contrast, the term reaction can refer to any negative response. I use the term ‘reaction’ because it can refer to the whole spectrum of food reactions, from the immune system attacking itself due to a perceived threat from certain foods, to pain and bloating caused by an out of whack micro-biome in the gut. An elimination diet can help pinpoint what foods are causing problems regardless of the underlying reason.