Pay attention to the whispers, so you don’t have to listen to the screams. – Cherokee proverb
Symptoms are usually directly caused by foods we eat. Yes, what you eat generally and your overall diet matters, but here I’m speaking about how specific foods or ingredients can directly cause a specific symptom or symptoms. You’ll learn about these food “triggers” or food sensitivities, how they’re different from allergies and how you can go about determining what they are for you so you can make smart dietary changes that produce results.
“Everything is fine except I have asthma and allergies.”
People often make statements like this about their health – they highlight the major symptoms they deal with, often things that have been diagnosed by a doctor or requires medications.
These are the screams, the things that are the most obvious, the things that really get their attention.
Meanwhile, after a longer conversation, it becomes clear that they also experience the following:
Dark circles under their eyes
These are the day to day “whispers” that we often rationalize away – it’s my schedule, my stress level, lack of exercise, sleep, etc.
While those poor lifestyle habits may play a role, even when you keep the schedule, the stress and everything else, these more subtle symptoms may go away with a change in diet because, individually, these are all signs of food reactions.
What are food “reactions”?
Here are the 3 major features you should know about:
1. They’re not allergies, which are a near immediate reaction to a food – hives, throat closure, difficulty breathing, etc.
Food reactions (we’ll call them food sensitivities here) are a different type of inflammatory reaction in the body. Their effects are hidden, delayed (hours or days after consuming a food), more tolerable and often considered “normal”.
2. Food sensitivities become addictive – they can have an opiate drug-like effect on our brains and in some cases can cause psychosis. (1, 2)
Foods can create dependencies through a variety of different mechanisms in the body, but I don’t want to get too technical here.
It’s important to observe how your mood, ability to focus and sense of well-being changes throughout the day, because food can have a profound affect on our nervous system and neurotransmitter production (all fancy words for our brain and mood).
3. Food sensitivities cause inflammation all on their own and worsen inflammation patterns that may already exist in the body.
Scenario 1: someone with low grade joint inflammation due to an injury will experience a big spike in inflammation (and therefore pain) in that joint after consuming a food that they’re sensitivity to. That’s why tracking ALL your symptoms in your food journal is helpful.
Scenario 2: someone who has a high level of emotional stress is not quite at the headache point, but eats something they’re sensitive to and all of a sudden, the head pain starts up. Again, that may be immediately, a few hours later or the next morning.
In both of the above scenarios, one could say they just have joint pain or stress headaches, completely missing the fact that the food reaction was basically the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Another major problem is that food sensitivities and the inflammatory processes involved are the root cause of MOST chronic illness.
Down the road, after a prolonged period of this constant inflammation, things start to break down. Your body is less able to protect itself, detoxify, maintain a healthy weight, balance blood sugar, regulate hormones or even properly digest food and absorb nutrients. Your immune system starts to go into overdrive and this can set you up for much bigger immune issues down the road.
We don’t want to wait until we have these obvious conditions (screams) to act. At that point, the road to recovery is longer and more complicated.
Even still, it’s never too late to start to identify and remove your hidden stressors and inflammatory triggers. And the triggers may change over time, so learning this skill now means you’ll be able to trouble shoot any future problems that show up for you.
Uncovering your Hidden Stressors
The point of this exercise is to examine our diets without judgment. Don’t assume just yet that you know what is causing your symptoms or make any guesses based on what you think is healthy or not.
Just question everything equally.
If you do this, you’ll be able to create a dietary approach (that you’d never find in a book or website) that is just right for you and addresses your personal hidden triggers.
ANSWER THESE 8 KEY QUESTIONS:
1. What foods show up very frequently, maybe even daily or multiple times per day.
Yogurt? Bread? Crackers? Chips? Chocolate? Wine? A particular type of fruit or vegetable – tomatoes for example? A specific beverage?
2. Is there a particular ingredient or food group that seems to dominate? Dairy, wheat or other grains like corn, chocolate, peanut butter?
Maybe your salad dressings are all creamy (dairy), your desserts always have chocolate in them and are flour-based (wheat) like cookies, cake, pie and you prefer tortilla chips (corn) to potato chips.
Circle the things that you eat most frequently and start to note what they’re made of and what they’re key ingredients are.
3. Can any of these foods be described as your favorite? Things you really, really love? Star those. 🙂
Maybe they’re especially good at getting you over the afternoon “hump”, or you don’t feel full or satisfied if they’re not included in your meal or you find yourself really craving that food if you’ve left it out of your diet for a day.
Remember, foods that are considered healthy can fall into this category, too. Nothing is off the examination table.
4. Which foods are difficult for you to portion control?
There’s a reason why someone can’t just eat one chip, cookie or cracker. Sometimes it’s the addictive additives like MSG, but more often than not, it’s what the chip, cookie or cracker is made of that we are reacting to, such as wheat, dairy or corn. Also look at what foods or desserts you tend to want seconds of at meal time.
5. Is there a food that you could easily eat alone as a meal?
One I hear most frequently is cheese. The cheese, crackers and wine dinner that many of my clients find to be very satisfying dinner after a long stressful day. Remember that you food triggers often affect your brain like an opiate drug, they feel very soothing and relaxing to you, all the while, they’re causing inflammation.
6. Which food is your favorite bedtime snack?
Again, just like the the cheese and cracker dinner, before bed, we often crave something that will help us sleep. The interesting thing about the stimulation we get from our food triggers is that after the temporary burst of excitement in our nervous systems, we crash. Night night. Our body knows this and seeks out the “calming” substance.
A bowl of cereal is a common one or a slice of toast, milk, etc.
7. What is your emotional relationship to this food? When you think about not having it, do you feel panicked, desperate or anxious?
This is always a dead giveaway for me when talking with clients. It could even be as simple as me handing them a food list and they notice what’s NOT on there immediately – “where are the tomatoes?”. Then, it’s time for us to talk about their relationship to tomatoes because that’s the first thing on their mind. Oftentimes, your food trigger dominates your thoughts!
8. Are there any foods you already have a “gut” feeling about, maybe you’ve questioned in the past whether or not it was having some kind of negative effect on you?
Even looking at the food gives you a sense of foreboding. That’s your intuition talking, which is a great thing to tap into.
Hopefully some patterns are emerging. All of these things provide clues into the foods that are likely symptom triggers for us – these questions help identify your biggest triggers. It works every time!
Remove the Triggers
Once you’ve identified which foods are possible triggers, you can start creating an eating plan that does not include those foods.
Here’s a cheat sheet of what you may want to consider removing from your diet for a time. Though not a complete list, these are the biggest offenders and the ones you may want to consider first.
Don’t let this overwhelm you. It can seem like this is a long list and covers a lot of what you currently eat. The point here is to match up the foods that you identified through the questions outlined above with the foods in this chart. There may be no need for you to avoid all of these things.
Really, except for the vegetables, this is the go-to list for the processed food industry. Going a few weeks without many of these will only be a positive change, even if you’re not sensitive to them.
One caveat are that eggs are inherently healthy, but many people are sensitive to them for a variety of reasons.
So, what’s left to eat?
Whole, unprocessed foods. Here’s a handy SHOPPING LIST that will cover most of the things you’ll want to start buying and incorporating into your diet.
This is an anti-inflammatory food list, so it’s great for everyone.
Start reducing or removing the key foods that you found may be potential triggers. One week without them is great, two is better and three weeks is the ideal.
This is basically an elimination diet where you will start re-introducing these foods back in after 3 weeks (I will provide instructions on how to do that in the next installment of this series). Then, you’ll be able to confirm which foods are causing your symptoms.
For now, start phasing them out so you can begin to feel what life is like without those nagging symptoms and avoid a future of having to listen to your body’s screams.
You can also do a simple lab test to determine which foods are problematic for you, which I discuss here, but you’ll still want to combine that with your own real world experience using the above guidelines.
Have questions? That’s ok, this is important work and an essential step in reaching your goals. Reach out with questions. I’m here to help!
To reversing your symptoms,