Develop and maintain a healthy diet to avoid trigger foods takes patience and practice.
Gone are the days of simple food. Food as comfort, food for the family and a quick run to the grocery store are not as easy as they once may have been. From label reading and price comparisons to counting grams of sugar and looking for preservatives, many people have to screen food because of food allergies or intolerances.
It can be overwhelming, and I have watched many patients stare blankly at me following the diagnosis of a food allergy, unsure of where to begin. Navigating the world of food allergies may indeed be challenging, but well worth the effort to return to health. Here is a guide to conquering food allergies.
Signs and symptoms
Is it worth the effort? Why bother screening every meal, every morsel that touches your mouth, for a suspected food allergy or intolerance? What many people do not realize is the profound implications food allergies can have for health. That favorite slice of pizza could be causing you gas, bloating, acne, reflux or even hormonal imbalances. Your morning latte could be triggering a cycle of inflammation in your body, setting the stage for a future disease. Struggling with weight? Food allergies could play a role here as well.
Common symptoms of food allergies include hives, sneezing or watery eyes, a feeling that your throat is closing or abdominal pain. Food allergies typically have an early and quick response. Food intolerances, on the other hand, are often subtler. Food intolerance begins to play a role in inflammation, which can have a great impact on overall health and prevention. Symptoms like weight gain, joint pain, fatigue, irregular bowel patterns, a weakened immune response, acne and reflux are all possible symptoms of intolerance.
Diagnosis and elimination
Trying to nail down a food allergy or intolerance is difficult. Eliminating a suspected food and then reintroducing it is considered the “gold standard” in the allergy world. The elimination needs to be 100 percent removal of the food(s) for at least four to six weeks — meaning you abstain from all traces of those foods. Eliminations for shorter periods of time are not long enough to change symptoms.
Testing for food allergies or food intolerances can quickly help pinpoint the foods to be eliminated. From skin prick tests to blood testing, there are a number of food allergy and intolerance tests available. Food allergy tests differ from food intolerance tests, with food allergy testing focused on an IGE, or type 1 immune system response, and food intolerances focused on an IGG, or type 4 immune response. Talk to your doctor about your testing options to help you really hone in on the foods that may be the root of your symptoms.
The most common food triggers are gluten, dairy, corn, soy, egg and nuts. These are also some of the most prevalent foods in our current Western diet. Having one of these foods as a potential irritant can be a game changer when it comes to eating out, hosting an event or even just shopping at the grocery store. Whatever the culprit, you can be sure that until it is dealt with properly, the symptoms will not go away.
The next steps
The most helpful first step when learning of a food allergy or intolerance is to spend some time finding the sources of those foods in your daily diet. If gluten is the issue, begin eliminating wheat-based pastas and breads. Look for corn in packaged goods and products that contain corn syrup as a sweetener or additive. Soy is a commonly used additive as well. Take a critical look at the foods you eat and the labels on those boxes.
The second step is finding alternatives or substitutes for your favorite foods. This can often be the most overwhelming piece of the whole puzzle. Spend some time with a nutritionist well-versed in food allergies and intolerances, working with them to develop some sample meal plans. With so many nutrition resources available, look online to see if you can find recipes for your favorite foods that take your allergies into account.
With a new plan in hand, a new grocery list can be created. Talk to your grocer about options at your local store. The great news is that today, many items are labeled and easy to recognize if you have one of the common food allergens. Shopping and cooking with whole, fresh foods usually becomes the best option. Meal planning will become key and eating will be less about what sounds good and more about what is good for your body.
Talk to your doctor
Finally, in your personal food journey, keep an open conversation going with your doctor. Whether you are frustrated, feeling overwhelmed or simply not feeling better after following an elimination diet, let your doctor know. There may be additional resources or other answers to your medical questions.
Taz Bhatia, M.D., is a board-certified, Atlanta-based physician, specializing in integrative and emergency medicine, pediatrics and prevention, with expertise in women’s health, weight loss and nutrition. She is the author of What Doctors Eat and The 21-Day Belly Fix. Personal health challenges motivated Dr. Taz to pursue an alternative definition of health and healthy living. It led her to opening the nationally recognized practice, Centre Spring MD (formerly Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine). To learn more about Dr. Taz, visit doctortaz.com.