There's no shortage of information out there in the world about how to eat better. Magazines, books, infomercials, fad diets...everyone seems to have a readymade solution that will absolutely work for you! I have some good news, though: you don't have to make drastic changes in order to improve your diet. My personal health journey, and those of many of my health coaching clients, has been successful due to small, incremental changes over time. All it requires is some patience, and curiosity about how the foods you are eating impact your body.
The problem with all those magazines and infomercials is that there is no "one size fits all" diet that works for everyone. Certainly, there are guidelines we can all shoot for but the truth remains that one person's medicine can be another person's poison. In my health coaching practice, I find that folks have sensitivities not just to things like grains and dairy, but sometimes even foods as seemingly healthful as kale can cause a variety of issues. It all depends on the person. For example, I once thought eggs were the most important part of a breakfast for champions, until I discovered the impact eggs had on my family—heightened anger in one son, belly aches in another, and eczema in the youngest; and for me, fatigue and irritability. Many people do just fine with eggs, so eggs themselves aren't the problem. How each individual is able to tolerate any given food is the worthwhile focus.
Here's the thing, though: it can be quite challenging to determine what foods are problematic for our individual biology. Understanding the difference between food allergies and sensitivities is a great first step.
- Allergies trigger a histamine response from our immune system, resulting in sniffles, a scratchy throat, itching, difficulty breathing, swelling, hives, or in the worst case, an anaphylactic reaction.
- Food sensitivities can be harder to recognize because they can creep up on us over time, and the entire body can be affected, making it confusing to pinpoint cause and effect. Common gut related symptoms I see in my practice are gas, bloating, constipation, heartburn, and diarrhea. Other symptoms I see include feeling puffy or swollen, brain fog, fatigue, skin rashes, weight gain, acne, irritability, depression, headaches, arthritis, and muscle pain. Between the subtlety of these symptoms and the fact that our sensitivities may take days from the time of consumption to arise, it can be tricky to identify a food sensitivity.
The key skill in identifying if a food doesn't work for you is a heightened awareness of how food affects almost every aspect of how we feel and to start making connections with our symptoms and the food we have eaten. This is a monumental shift from our cultural tendency to look outside of ourselves for guidance on what food is best for us.
That being said, there are a few tools that can help us figure out whether a particular food is friendly or unfriendly to our individual system? There are two main methods.
- The Elimination Diet
Although it requires some patience and persistence, the "elimination diet" is considered the gold standard when it comes to identifying sensitivities. It is a systematic plan to remove and then reintroduce foods in a particular manner in order to identify those foods that trigger unwanted symptoms. Remove suspect foods from your diet for at least three weeks. If you don't have a sense of which foods could be the irritant, start by removing the five most common culprits: gluten, corn, dairy, eggs, and soy. Watch for uncomfortable symptoms when you reintroduce each food—try for one food every four days, consuming that food two to three times per day. If your symptom returns or worsens when you reintroduce the food, you may have a sensitivity to that food--or, your body composition just might not be suited for that particular food in general.
2. Blood Testing
Traditional allergy testing such as the IgE blood test or skin-prick test can uncover many food allergies—but not sensitivities. Many of the blood tests that claim to uncover food sensitivities are scrutinized for poor validity, so their accuracy may or may not be consistent or reliable. Nevertheless, many of my health coaching clients have had positive results using these tests as a road map to figure out which foods are causing them trouble. Rather than blindly striking out into the wilderness of possible food sensitivities, a blood test can shed some light on the path ahead and you can eliminate foods and observe from there. If interested in this method, discuss with your naturopath or functional MD if the IgG/IgA blood test would support reaching your health goals.
Stay Positive and Remember You Have a Choice
All this talk of diet restriction can be a bit depressing. I've even had clients realize after testing or following the elimination diet that they are sensitive to many of their favorite foods! It's an unfortunate truth that we can increase sensitivity to foods by overeating them—just another reason to keep our diets varied and fresh. Focus on the gains you are making in your knowledge of your own health. After all, when we eat foods that agree with our bodies, we have better health, and in turn higher quality of life. I encourage my clients to avoid the "I can't have…." mindframe, and instead recognize that they can have anything they want, but they have the knowledge and awareness to choose foods that best suit their bodies and support optimal living.
And there's good news—I have seen many people reverse food sensitivities (including my kiddos). I help individuals do this by identifying food triggers, removing problematic foods (for 2-6 months, or longer), and working to heal the gut with an anti-inflammatory diet, building a healthy microbiome, and choosing supplements that help strengthen the intestinal tract.
Not sure where to start? Working with a health coach, naturopath, or medical doctor familiar with food sensitivities is a constructive way to develop a plan for identifying problematic foods and take steps toward healing the digestive system. Pay attention to what you eat and how your body feels--tune in to the symptoms you feel on a day to day basis.
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.