Despite the increased awareness about how foods affect our health, there is still an awful lot of confusion about what “the perfect diet” looks like.
That confusion is magnified by the sheer number of experts out there claiming to have discovered the perfect way to eat to lose weight, look younger, and ward of all types of chronic disease.
But the strange thing is…not every one of these “perfect diets” works for every person. If they did, we wouldn’t have the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease we have today.
So what gives?
The simple truth is: there is no possible way one size can fit all when it comes to food and nutrition.
And a big reason for that, aside from genetic predisposition and health history, is food sensitivities.
When I talk about food sensitivities, I’m not talking about an allergic reaction to food, which is known as an igE-mediated response. A food allergy will cause symptoms like swollen lips or hives. A food sensitivity on the other hand, is a delayed hypersensitivity response, which is triggered by igG antibodies—food antigen and antibody complexes to which the immune system reacts(1).
Food sensitivities are different than food allergies in that their symptoms can range from mild to moderate, and often go undiagnosed since they appear unrelated to other health issues.
In today’s post you’ll learn about the most common food sensitivities very few people know about, plus:
- Why I believe food sensitivities have become so common.
- The insidious symptoms of food sensitivities to watch out for.
- The most common foods that trigger sensitivities.
- How to test for them at home and/or with your functional medicine doctor.
- And some helpful tips and resources for painlessly eliminating these foods from your diet.
Why Food Sensitivities are Becoming So Common
I must admit, I always wince when I overhear adults mocking “children these days” for their food sensitivities.
You’ve probably heard the jokes:
“When I was a kid we ate plain old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread we were just fine!”
Or: “Kids are too sensitive these days”
Or “Modern parents are just too over-protective”.
And to be fair, they do have a point.
When I was a child growing up in the 1980s, for example, food allergies and sensitivities just weren’t an issue like they are today.
No one had heard of celiac disease, lactose intolerance was just beginning to be accepted, and peanut allergies were nearly unheard of.
But this isn’t the 1980s anymore, and you’d better believe food sensitivities are a real issue.
But why? What’s changed so dramatically in the last 20-50 years?
It is my belief, that the current rise in food sensitivities and digestive disorders is largely due to the abandonment of our traditional culinary framework, compounded by increased toxic load.
In other words, our foods are more processed and less nutrient-dense than ever, and our food supply is bogged with toxins—from pesticides, GMOs, and antibiotic residues to artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.
It’s no wonder our bodies are reacting in strange new ways to these strange new foods…and it’s been slowly building up since the advent of processed foods post World War II.
So yes, we parents and our parents may have been able to enjoy tons of processed foods with little disease to show for it; but it’s showing up in us and our children now in the form of food sensitivities and allergies.
Insidious Symptoms of Food Sensitivities
While awareness about food sensitivities is growing, the vast majority of symptoms still remain a mystery to most doctors and patients.
What’s worse, if a patient suspects they may have a food sensitivity due to a mild reaction like bloating or eczema, many health care providers will dismiss food as the culprit because they themselves haven’t been educated on the nuances of food sensitivity symptoms.
The exception lies with integrative functional medicine physicians and practitioners who have special training in identifying insidious food sensitivities.
Regardless, it is wise to know the symptoms yourself so you can quickly identify a food sensitivity before it starts causing bigger problems.
The following is a list of common symptoms associated with food sensitivities:
- Brain Fog
- Chronic congestion
- Digestive issues
- Joint Aches
- Lack of appetite
- Weakened immunity
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does represent the most common symptoms of a sensitivity.
In addition, food sensitivities are often associated with the following conditions:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Hashimoto’s Thyroditis
- Hormonal imbalances
- Hypo and Hyperthyroidism
- Intestinal Dysbiosis
- Irritable Bowel Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrom
- Leaky Gut Syndrome
- Parkinson’s Disease
The Most Common Foods that Trigger Food Sensitivities
While not every person will be sensitive to every type of food—with some of us being lucky enough to have no food sensitivities—the following is a list of the most common trigger foods:
- Grains (including corn)
- Alcoholic beverages
In addition, some people with chronic conditions may have sensitivities to nightshade vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and eggplant) and nuts.
How to Test for Food Sensitivities At Home and With a Functional Medicine Doctor
If you’re looking at the list above and thinking: “Oh my gosh! How can I possibly eliminate all those foods and still keep my sanity?!” I have three bits of good news for you:
#1: Unless you’re dealing with a very complex, chronic condition, chances are you’re not sensitive to all these foods.
#2: If you are sensitive to some foods, you may be able to abstain from them for a period of time, then add them back in once you’ve healed your digestion.
#3: It’s super simple to determine your own food sensitivities at home or with a trained functional medicine doctor.
Let’s look at how to determine what foods you may be sensitive to at home using “the gold standard”: the 4-week elimination diet.
Embarking on an elimination diet to identify your food sensitivities need not be complicated: simply use the list above to eliminate the most common trigger foods from your diet for 4 weeks.
After 4 weeks, add one food back into your diet every 3 days and see how you feel.
If any of the symptoms you were concerned about return, then you know you have a sensitivity to that food. If they don’t, then you know you can continue enjoying it.
To enhance your success, use the resources offered in the last section of this post to stock up on substitutes which will make meal planning, cooking and eating much easier.
A Special Word About Dairy Sensitivities
Patients often ask me about whether it’s wise to eliminate dairy products, given their abundance of calcium and other reported health benefits.
I’ll address the calcium issue first.
It’s true, dairy products are rich in calcium which helps support healthy bone growth. However it is also true that a large portion of our population have a dairy sensitivity, which may very likely hinder their ability to absorb calcium from milk.
If you can’t digest it properly then you can’t absorb its nutrients efficiently.
And keep in mind, there are many places in the world where the people consume little-to-no dairy products and still have low rates of osteoporosis…which tells you there are other excellent sources of calcium out there.
Some of the best sources of non-dairy calcium for those with sensitivities include(2):
- Bone broths
- Canned salmon (preferably wild-caught)
- Leafy greens like kale, collards, spinach and bok choy
- Sesame seeds (tahini is a great source)
So yes, you absolutely can get enough calcium while foregoing dairy products.
And if you’re still concerned, consider talking to your integrative practitioner about a calcium supplement.
Now let’s look at dairy’s other health benefits…
It’s funny, a few years ago no one in the integrative health field would have considered dairy a “health food”. In fact, it was considered public nutrition enemy #2 (a close second to white sugar).
However, recent research has surfaced proving the benefits of specific dairy products, like raw milk and cultured dairy like kefir, go beyond calcium by providing nourishment for your microbiome and immune system(3).
Studies have even linked raw milk consumption to a reduction in respiratory infections(4), and some people who cannot tolerate conventional cow’s milk can tolerate A1 cow’s milk, goat, sheep, or buffalo milk.
So, should you eliminate all dairy products or just pasteurized cow’s milk?
For the purposes of determining food sensitivities, I do recommend removing ALL dairy products, including raw milk, A1 milk, goat, sheep, or buffalo milk and cultured dairy products, for the 4 weeks.
Then, after 4 weeks you can try adding in different types of dairy and see how you react.
If you’re like many of my patients, you may very well be able to tolerate yogurt, raw milk, or goat’s milk even if you can’t stomach pasteurized dairy products.
So, go full force with no dairy of any type for 4 weeks, then re-introduce different forms of it and pay attention to your reactions.
Also, keep in mind your ancestry has a lot to do with how you react to dairy.
For example, studies have shown those with Northern European ancestry are much less likely to have a dairy sensitivity than those of African or Asian origin(5).
This is due to the length of time a culture or country has been raising cattle. The longer the people have been raising cattle and drinking milk, the better their tolerance for it.
So, as usual, genetics play a big role in how we react to food.
What to do with your elimination diet results
Now that you have a good idea of your food sensitivities, you have a couple choices:
- You can either continue avoiding the foods you’re sensitive to,
- OR find a functional medicine doctor to help figure out what may be causing that sensitivity in the first place.
Often, food sensitivities are just a symptom of another digestive health issue, like leaky gut syndrome or candida overgrowth, that can be treated once it’s properly diagnosed.
Which means with time and healing, you may be able to go back to enjoying those foods without sensitivity—hurrah!!!
To discover the root cause of your food sensitivities, your doctor will complete a comprehensive intake and likely run a food sensitivity panel, stool tests and possibly other labs depending on your symptoms.
Once they receive your results, they will design an individual treatment plan to address your food sensitivities and any underlying infections.
When treating my patients, I work with them to customize a functional medicine treatment plan based on nutrition, lifestyle changes, stress management, and supplementation.
Once they’ve followed that plan for a certain amount of time, we will evaluate their experience and re-test to check progress.
The amount of time it takes to totally eliminate food sensitivities is entirely unique to each individual, and some patients will have a version of these sensitivities forever.
But often they can return to enjoying these foods, or a variation of them, once their digestive system is healed.
Resources to Make Your Elimination Diet Easy
While the concept of the elimination diet is quite simple, the implementation can seem daunting if you’re used to eating the standard American diet.
Thankfully, there are more delicious, convenient, and readily available sources of elimination-friendly food than ever to support you during these 4 short weeks.
Here’s a list of what you can eat:
- Gluten-free, grain-free breads, chips, and tortillas—often found in the bakery or freezer section of natural foods stores.
- Dairy-free creamers, milks, and cheeses—in the refrigerator section of natural food stores.
- Replace grains, beans, and legumes with more vegetables, sweet potatoes, veggie noodles, soy-free shirataki noodles, riced cauliflower, coconut, and almond flour—many stores, like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods now have cauliflower already “riced” and veggie noodles pre-spiralized.
- Replace soy-based products with coconut and nut-based products like coconut and almond milk.
- To replace eggs in baking, mix 1 tablespoon flax meal with 1 tablespoon water. Soak until it gels and use 1:1 in place of eggs.
- Sweeteners such as natural stevia, raw honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup
- Kombucha in place of alcohol—you will be surprised how it relaxes you and calms the mind (especially when enjoyed from a wine glass).
I also love shopping online for deals on elimination-diet-friendly foods. Stores like Thrivemarket.com offer member discounts on a variety of these foods.
And if you need a little more help…
My bestselling book, “Bloom” includes many resources to make this process easy including access to “Dr. Alex’s Elimination Diet Quick Start Guide” with sample recipes and menu plans.
I hope this article has helped you understand a little more about the realities of food sensitivities and given you hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The most important takeaways are:
- There is no “perfect way of eating” for everyone.
- Nor is there any point in arbitrarily eliminating foods until you know for sure that you actually have a sensitivity.
- Then once you have that knowledge you can go about addressing the root cause and getting your health back on track.
Now that you’ve read this article and know about the book, you have what you need to identify any of those health-zapping foods, and find a functional medicine doctor to help you heal your digestion you can (hopefully) enjoy a variety of foods again.