How to Identify Food Intolerances

When people talk about a food intolerance or food sensitivity, they’re referring to a condition in which the body can’t completely process a food. A food allergy, on the other hand, is the body’s response to a perceived threat.

If you suspect that your health issues may be due to an adverse reaction to gluten, listen to your hunch. To figure out whether gluten may be the cause of some of your health issues, rule out a more serious disease with your doctor and then leave gluten out of your diet for a week or two and see whether your symptoms subside.

Try an elimination diet

An elimination diet is the most accurate way to identify which foods are making you feel bad. The goal of an elimination diet is to test all possible foods that may be triggering your symptoms. By eliminating one food at a time for at least a few weeks and then adding suspect foods back into your diet one at a time, you can find out which food or foods are making you sick.

An elimination diet isn’t fun, but it’s a surefire way to find out which foods you should be avoiding, including foods that contain gluten! But don’t bother with this approach to solving your food-related mysteries unless you can commit to it for a while. Sort of cutting out certain foods won’t help you figure out how you feel without those foods.

Before you begin an elimination diet to sort out possible food intolerances, you may want to seek the guidance of a doctor, naturopath, or dietitian. Your school probably even has someone who can advise you on how to complete an elimination diet successfully. Check with your food director, health center, or nutrition department.

You can find tons of elimination-diet plans online. Some last longer than others or focus on a few different ingredients, but most are essentially the same. Find one that looks right for you, and be sure to keep a food diary, because it’s very easy to forget what you ate and how you felt before and after.

The first phase: Limiting what you eat

Pick a time when you can realistically commit to following the elimination diet — maybe not during finals or over holidays. Every website and book you refer to gives a different amount of time for the elimination phase; five to ten days seems to be a pretty common recommendation, but some suggest longer.

To begin with, you stop consuming anything processed, and you avoid sugar, gluten, dairy, eggs, alcohol, and caffeine. So what on earth can you eat? Keep it simple. Start with unprocessed and simply prepared meats, fish, poultry, and vegetables.

For instance, you can eat filet mignon, mashed potatoes (without milk or butter), and vegetables for three meals a day and even snacks. Grill a week’s worth of steak in advance and then fry it in a pan with some garlic at mealtime.

Some elimination diet plans recommend that you avoid potatoes, too, but definitely avoid foods you normally eat every day or every week to get a good picture of how eliminating them from your diet makes you feel.

Initially, you want to limit your diet to the following foods:

  • Vegetables (but avoid corn, peas, or beans)

  • Fruit (but avoid citrus and any fruit that you currently eat two or more times a week)

  • Meat (but avoid highly processed meats such as bacon and hot dogs)

  • Rice and gluten-free grains such as amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat

  • Bottled or distilled water

  • Herbal teas

Avoid consuming all foods that are highly processed and artificial as well as foods that are likely to trigger an adverse reaction, such as these:

  • Dairy products (rice milk is good alternative)

  • Caffeine, soda, and alcohol

  • Sugar and artificial sweeteners (stevia is okay)

  • Wheat, rye, barley, oats, and anything containing gluten

  • Eggs

  • Highly processed meats: bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and lunch meats

  • Nuts

  • Peas, beans, and corn

  • Citrus fruit

  • All processed foods, food colors, dyes, and additives such as MSG

  • Any food you currently eat more than twice a week

It’s normal to crave foods that you eat frequently, and you need to expect some withdrawal from caffeine if you drink it regularly. A couple of days with a whopping headache should put you over it.

The challenge phase: Introducing new foods

After five to ten days of eliminating most foods, you start the challenge phase. Add back one new food every three to four days and eat a generous amount of that food. Keep out glutenous grains, corn, soy, and dairy products until the end, because allergies to these foods are common.

Continue to write in your food journal as you reintroduce foods, and be sure to note any symptoms that appear with a newly introduced food or reappear with an old favorite. Common symptoms of food allergy or sensitivity include fatigue, depression, anxiety, nasal congestion, dark circles under the eyes, headaches, irritability, abdominal pain, digestive issues, hives, itchy skin, hyperactivity, attention deficits, and memory issues.

You may be surprised to find that foods you frequently crave are the bad guys.

After you identify triggers for unpleasant symptoms, avoid eating those foods for several months before trying them in your diet again. This period of rest may allow your immune system time to recover its tolerance to some, or all, previously reactive foods, but it may not. Be careful to avoid the foods that increase any unpleasant symptoms.

Undergo blood tests and allergy testing

Blood tests and allergy testing are certainly easier than an elimination diet, but these tests can be inaccurate and thus not so helpful for determining which foods are making you sick. That said, these tests can offer important information about your health.

Some things you’re reacting to won’t show up in tests, and other things may show up as a minor allergy but cause major symptoms. Sometimes, though, you can have a big “aha!” moment from an allergy or blood test.

To figure out which tests may help you the most, see a medical doctor who specializes in allergies or a licensed naturopathic doctor. Tests for foods, additives, environmental chemicals, molds, and more are available.

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