Pinpointing the cause of mysterious symptoms is challenging, especially when it comes to your body. While food sensitivities seem to be getting more and more common, in some cases the search for the ‘elusive’ food trigger might actually cause more suffering than the original symptoms. In other cases, pinpointing a food sensitivity can finally provide an answer and relief.
As a registered dietitian, food sensitivity is something I commonly see clients for, and is an area I find particularly interesting. Food sensitivities can be difficult to figure out and often require an investment of time on your part. However in the end, being able to manage them is worth it!
If you think you might have food sensitivities and are wondering if they are worth looking into, here are some things you should know:
1. Many things trigger symptoms, not just food
Symptoms can show up in many different ways – indigestion, bloating, bowel changes, skin changes, headaches… the list goes on. Symptoms like this, including digestive symptoms, can be a result of many things other than food intolerances.
Before jumping to food, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate other areas of your life as well. If your symptoms came on suddenly, did something change in your life at a similar time? Perhaps you switched jobs, got a pet, went travelling, lost a loved one, started a new supplement or medication, have been feeling stressed or anxious about something, have hay fever, tried a new lotion? All of these, and many other factors can have a significant impact on your overall well being.
Food intolerances should certainly be explored to see if they are contributing to symptoms, but foods should be considered in context with other areas of your life as well. We now know that the connection between our brain and our digestive system is a very strong one, and how we’re feeling has a very real impact on digestion, immunity, and many other physiological processes in the body.
2. There are no proven tests that reliably diagnose food sensitivities
There are many tests available that claim to diagnose food sensitivities. Some of these include IgG testing, ELISA, meridian testing and kinesiology (different from the exercise specialists!). These tests aren’t standardized, and may even indicate tolerance to certain foods (the opposite of a sensitivity!). These tests tend to give different results even when the same test is done twice on the same person. They are expensive, and generally not useful. I’ve worked with many people who have had these kinds of tests done and find that they lead to complicated diets with unnecessary restrictions.
3. Take a break from internet research
When you’re feeling less than optimal, it’s understandable that you want to figure out a solution ASAP. While it’s great to be proactive, too much information can be overwhelming and so much of the information online is dramatic, conflicting and misleading. Remember that anyone can publish an article online. Just because they can write, have had an experience, or have an opinion doesn’t make them an expert on the subject matter. So while Dr. Google is a tempting option, I find it can be one of the most counterproductive things you might do – sure, you may have started out with a wheat sensitivity, but before you know it you’re self-diagnosed with terminal cancer! (Sound familiar?).
Trust your healthcare team (or find one that you trust). Talk to them about what’s going on with you. We’ve dedicated our lives to studying and understanding health issues and are here to support you and help you figure out what’s going on.
4. Tracking is a must!
Trust me on this one. I know it’s a lot of work, but it’s something you’ve just got to do. Think back to 8 days ago. Exactly what, when and where did you eat? What did you drink in the morning? Through the day? What kind of mood were you in? When were your bowel movements? What were they like? On a scale of 1-10 how were your symptoms?
Chances are you’re not able to answer all of those questions. I know I’m not! Tracking allows you to gather lots of detailed information without having to remember it all, and all of this information allows us to look at patterns over time. It’s the best way to tell if a change is working or not, or if something is coming up that’s worth trying.
5. Consistency and meal planning
It’s important to tackle food sensitivities with a plan. When you make haphazard changes it’s stressful, time consuming and can be expensive, plus it’ll leave you without an answer. It’s also important to give each change a chance – it’s really common for people to bounce from one therapy to the next and never actually sit long enough to give anything an opportunity to work properly. Meal planning also adds an element of consistency to your routine. Constantly worrying about what you’ll eat at upcoming meals is tiring. Meal planning can save time and reduce stress that may come with meals.
6. Only change one thing at a time
It’s tempting to try everything you can think of that might help so you can get better faster. The problem is, when you change 5 things and your symptoms improve, you don’t know which of those 5 things was the one that actually helped. An experienced dietitian can help guide this process and prioritize what change might be best to try first.
7. Everyone is different
Remember that guy you Googled who said that the (insert diet here) fixed all of his problems? Be careful with elimination diets or other diets that claim to be a fix all. Our bodies are all very unique, and even the best studied therapies don’t work for everyone! It’s important to be patient and listen to your body – experimenting in a carefully planned systematic way, and keeping track of how your body responds is the best way to know what works for you.
8. Work with a registered dietitian
You may have more questions after reading this article. Understandable, because this stuff is really complex and very individualized!
It’s impossible to fit all of the information you need into one article, so if you’re looking for more information talk to your dietitian. There are certain foods to try eliminating first and many other things that might help you – like supplements, medications, and counselling. The bottom line is that the answer is different for everyone, so it’s important to work with your team to come up with an individualized plan for you.
*Please note that the advice provided is general and not meant to replace advice specific to you from your healthcare provider. This article is meant to address sensitivities, not true food allergies, which can be life threatening! If you have or suspect you have a true food allergy always seek medical advice and testing.
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