An hour after eating a cheese sandwich, your stomach feels upset. It could be something you ate’but is it the bread, the cheese or the glass of milk you had two days ago? We turned to the experts on elimination diets to find out how to identify food allergies and intolerances. (Health Canada explains the difference between the two here.)
1. If you think a food allergy is causing your symptoms, you’re probably on the right track
While it’s unclear how widespread food sensitivities are, Kathryn Nobrega-Porter, a naturopathic doctor at the Wellpath Clinic in Toronto, says that 50 percent of the American population is estimated to have a food intolerance.
That said, it is possible to have psychological aversions to food‘for example, if you associate chicken soup with getting the flu, cautions Catherine Field, a professor in agriculture, food and nutritional science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. And some people may believe they’re intolerant to more foods than they really are‘thinking they’re sensitive to eggs and milk, when only milk is a problem.
However, both Field and Nobrega-Porter believe people are often in tune with their bodies and instinctively know when a certain food is making them feel unwell.
‘If people think they have a food allergy, then they probably do have an allergy. There’s probably something there that has given them that idea,’ says Field.
2. Elimination diets are used to pinpoint reactions
If you have severe anaphylactic allergies that can send you to the emergency room, you probably already know what foods will trigger a reaction. Mild food allergies or intolerances may be more mysterious and can cause symptoms such as rashes, diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, migraines, a generally unwell feeling or a tickle in the back of the throat, according to Field.
Nobrega-Porter says foods can also trigger chronic symptoms like anxiety, joint pain, menstrual and hormonal problems.
A long list of foods can cause these reactions. The tricky part is that some symptoms flare up within minutes of eating the food, while others take hours or days to surface. Figuring out what’s triggering the reaction is why you turn to an elimination diet.
3. Elimination diets help you find trigger foods
Although Nobrega-Porter says there are some similarities between detox and elimination diets, the two are not one and the same: ‘a detox is more of a cleansing process,’ she says, while an elimination diet is an identifying process.
To identify what’s causing her patients’ symptoms, Nobrega-Porter recommends a healthy eating plan of non-gluten grains and starches, lean animal proteins, fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds, while eliminating caffeine, alcohol, refined sugar and common trigger foods such as dairy, soy and corn.
After three to four weeks, her patients reintroduce foods, consuming one serving twice a day, and monitor their reaction over the next 48 hours.
‘When is this rash appearing? Is it the next day after reintroducing the tomatoes? Then we might think that this is a reactive food for you. We’ll remove tomatoes again, and see if the rash goes away,‘ explains Nobrega-Porter.
4. It’s best to consult a professional
Field says it’s generally safe to eliminate one food item at a time on your own’for example, if you think the lactose in milk proteins is upsetting your stomach, stop consuming dairy products and see if your symptoms subside.
But seek professional guidance from your family doctor, a dietitian or nutritionist or a naturopathic doctor before eliminating several food groups. ‘If you don’t have help, you can make false conclusions about what’s causing the intolerances,’ says Field. She also recommends seeing a physician to rule out inflammatory bowl diseases and environmental allergies.
5. Elimination diets can have drawbacks
Cutting out a wide range of foods for a period of several weeks means you risk not getting enough calories and enough nutrients from a sufficient variety of foods. That’s where it’s best to consult a professional who can recommend recipes and vitamin supplements to support your body through the process.
As well, following an elimination diet can wreak havoc on your social life‘finding dishes you can eat at a restaurant can be tricky and turning down food at a friend’s dinner party can be embarrassing.
To make the process as smooth as possible, Field recommends identifying the specific foods that cause reactions rather than eliminating an entire food category. ‘For example, if they’re allergic to citrus and strawberries, people might stop eating all fresh fruit. They have no problem with apples or bananas, but they stop eating all fresh fruit,’ she says.
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