by Dr. Will Cole
Food is medicine, and yet, food can also be one of the biggest contributors to chronic health problems. Our bodies are alive because of the way the foods we eat either feed health or feed disease. You may think you already know this. No sugar and junk food, obviously, right? But food triggers can be much more subtle than fast-food French fries and supersized sodas.
Much of your individual body’s reactions to the foods you eat come from your unique biochemistry, microbiome configuration, lifestyle, stress level, and immune status. I have seen the healthiest foods flare up symptoms in one person, contributing to inflammation in their muscles and joints, digestive problems, and brain fog, while the next person can thrive on those same foods. How can the same food be good medicine for one person and bad medicine for another? I see three primary causes for this apparent discrepancy:
Food allergies: True food allergies come from an immediate and severe reaction of the immune system to some aspect of a particular food. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include rashes, itching, hives, and swelling, or even anaphylaxis, which involves swelling of the airways and difficulty breathing which can be fatal.
Food intolerances: Unlike allergies, these do not directly involve the immune system. Instead, intolerances occur when your body is unable to digest certain foods (such as dairy) or when your digestive system becomes irritated by them. These are usually the result of enzyme deficiencies.
Food sensitivities: These are similar to intolerances, but it’s often less clear why someone reacts poorly to a certain food. Food sensitivities may result in a more delayed reaction, and you might be able to digest a small amount of the food without issues.
However, for some, continually ingesting a food that they are sensitive to can cause long-term chronic health issues they may have no idea are linked to a food sensitivity. Symptoms might include:
- Heartburn/acid reflux
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Stomach aches
- Runny nose
- Brain fog
- Trouble concentrating
- Flu-like symptoms
Here are the foods that I find most commonly cause problems:
1. Gluten-containing grains: wheat, rye, barley
Gluten, the protein that’s found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley, is probably one of the most common sensitivities that I see. While most of us have heard of celiac disease, many think it may have nothing to do with them if they don’t experience digestive symptoms. The reality is that celiac disease is the end stage of a whole autoimmune spectrum of gluten sensitivity. In other words, there can also be less serious reactions to gluten that may have an autoimmune component but do not (yet) constitute full-blown celiac disease. If you believe you might have a sensitivity to gluten, there are some tests you can consider, but this is also an area where an elimination diet can be helpful.
2. Gluten-free grains: corn, rice, buckweat
Those who choose to avoid gluten but are still having symptoms may not realize that they are grain-intolerant, even when those grains are gluten-free. If this sounds like you, then know that you could have a sensitivity to any particular grain, or all grains. Or, your problem might be cross-reactivity, in which the proteins in grains such as rice and corn can be similar enough in structure to gluten that the body mistakes them and reacts as if they were gluten. This is called molecular mimicry and is sort of like a case of mistaken identity. Many of my patients have sensitivities to some gluten-free grains, although not all.
A plant group that consists of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, goji berries, and some spices containing alkaloids, which can be inflammatory for some people.
Legumes include all types of beans (kidney, garbanzo, black, fava,) lentils, peanuts, edamame, and soy products (tofu, miso.) Many of these foods are staples for people who are trying to eat more plant-based meals, but the lectins and phytate proteins of legumes can be hard for some people to digest. The carbohydrates are also yummy food for your gut bacteria, and when they consume them, they release gas, which means you get gas and the accompanying bloating and discomfort.
Even if you don’t get gas from legumes, they could cause undue stress to your gastrointestinal and immune system due to those lectins and phytates. Peanuts might also contain aflatoxin (toxins produced by a mold), while soy has phytoestrogens, which can interfere with healthy hormone balance. Of all the legumes I have found that soy tends to be the most likely to cause problems for people.
The incredible egg has many nutrients, mainly in the yolk, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic for some. In my experience, it is actually the egg white that is typically more immunoreactive for people. The protein in the white, albumin, could pass through the intestinal lining if you have leaky gut syndrome, contributing to inflammation. The yolks are generally better tolerated, although it’s important to note that some people can’t handle the yolk, either.
This strange sounding acronym stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols. In short: fermentable sugars. These short-chain sugars are contained in many different foods and are not fully digested in the gut, which can cause them to be excessively fermented by gut bacteria.
This fermentation releases hydrogen gas that could lead to distension of the intestines, which can cause uncomfortable IBS symptoms in some people, such as pain, gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. This would be considered a FODMAP intolerance, and tends to be related to functional issues like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO.)
Most of the high-FODMAP foods are actually healthy whole, foods, but again, that doesn’t mean they work well for everyone. If you think you are FODMAP intolerance, try avoiding or severely limiting the following foods, at least temporarily, to see if it helps:
Artichokes, asparagus, beetroot, celery, garlic, onions, leek bulb, legumes, Savoy cabbage, sugar snap peas, sweet corn
Apples, mango, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, watermelon
Milk, cream, custard, ice cream, soft cheeses, yogurt
Rye, wheat-containing breads, cereals, crackers, pasta
Fructose, one FODMAP sugar, is one of the more common intolerances. Fructose intolerance is often found in people with recurring stomach pain and bloating. The goal with treating a FODMAP intolerance is not to remove the foods forever but to heal the gut so that you can eventually increase your intake of these foods, especially the high-FODMAP fruits and vegetables, which are valuable sources of nutrients.
Casein, a protein found in animal milk and products made from it like ice cream and cheese, is another common sensitivity. But there is more to the dairy story. Cows on most major dairy farms are routinely given hormones to increase milk production and antibiotics to combat mastitis infections. They also tend to live in unhealthy, unclean conditions, and are fed corn instead of their natrual food, grass. Their milk is then typically pasteurized (super heated) and homogenized (blended) and the fat is often removed. To make up for this highly processed product having so little remaining nutrition, synthetic vitamins are typically added back into milk, in an attempt to simulate what nature had already included in the first place, in its whole-food form.
Organic dairy is better because it does not allow the use of hormones and antibiotics. Fermented dairy, such as grass-fed kefir and yogurt, is even better, as it mitigates some of the problems people have with casein sensitivity and includes beneficial bacteria, so it may be better tolerated. However, some people can not ever have any dairy, in any form.
8. Nuts and seeds
The roughage of nuts and seeds, and well as the lectin and phytate proteins, can irritate some people’s digestion. Plus, most nuts sold in stores are typically coated in inflammatory industrial seed oils, like soybean or canola oil. They could also contain partially hydrogenated trans-fats, which can contribute even more to inflammation. I find that people who are intolerant to nuts typically do better buying them raw, soaking them, and lightly toasting them at home. I also recommend enjoying them sparingly.
How to discover your food sensitivities:
There are many labs I run to help my patients pinpoint which foods might be causing issues, but you can also find out which foods aren’t working for your body on your own by following an elimination diet. In my video course with mindbodygreen, I’ll teach you exactly how to use the elimination diet. By temporarily removing the foods that are most likely to cause reactions, you give your gut time to heal and help bring down inflammation levels.
Then, you can bring back foods you love systematically to discover your true personal reactivities. This process is highly effective. When I did it, I discovered that I couldn’t tolerate certain sugars, dairy, and gluten. What foods are not working for you? Finding out is the beginning of healing.
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