Allergies, Intolerances, And Triggers
Food allergies, intolerances, and “trigger” foods. Discover yours.
Getting more dialed on food and feelings, both physical and emotional.
To continue to build awareness of your eating patterns, you can start paying closer attention to how you feel and behave after you eat or drink certain foods—even if what you’re experiencing doesn’t seem food-related.
Those feelings may include:
- food allergies,
- food intolerances, and/or
- eating behaviors that aren’t ideal.
If you have a major food allergy, you probably know it.
You’ve probably been rushed to the hospital and/or suffered anaphylaxis—a sudden and severe immune system response in which the body releases massive amounts of histamine.
However, many folks also have milder oral allergies.
Oral allergies involve:
- itching and burning of the lips, mouth and throat
- watery itchy eyes
- runny nose
More serious allergies can involve:
- skin rashes, flushing, and hives
- nausea, abdominal cramping, vomiting and diarrhea
- asthma and airway swelling (in severe cases, being blocked completely)
- cardiac arrest and shock
These symptoms usually happen within minutes of eating or touching the food, but can sometimes take a little longer to appear.
Common food allergens
The most common food allergens are:
- nuts and peanuts
- cow’s milk
- sesame seeds
- sulfites (used as a food additive)
Oral allergies usually involve particular fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, tomatoes, melons, avocados, apples, or stone fruits.
If you have other types of allergies (especially seasonal hay fever/pollen allergies), there’s a good chance you may have at least a mild food intolerance or allergy of some kind.
Beyond food allergies, there’s another class of food problem called food intolerance.
Food intolerance is much more common than food allergy, and happens for many reasons—generally because we don’t digest a certain food properly, and because this indigestion prompts an inflammatory response by our immune systems.
Symptoms of food intolerance are usually milder than food allergy. They can include:
- GI symptoms such as gas, bloating, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramping
- respiratory symptoms such as stuffy nose, mucus production, sinusitis, worsening hay fever or asthma
- skin symptoms such as rashes/eczema, acne, itchy eyes or skin
- pain and inflammation such as headaches/migraines, joint pain, menstrual pain
- mood and energy changes such as fatigue or irritability (in children, behavioral problems and aggression)
- worsening of existing autoimmune conditions such as allergies, thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, etc.
One of the most challenging aspects of food intolerance is that symptoms may take a while to appear after eating the offending food.
You might eat a piece of bread, then start sniffling and scratching four hours later—long after you’ve forgotten about the bread. Or you might have a glass of milk or dish of cottage cheese in the morning, then feel vaguely gassy and bloated in the afternoon or evening.
Another challenge is that many symptoms aren’t stomach-focused.
If you eat something that disagrees with your GI tract, you usually know about it. But if MSG triggers a migraine, it might take a while to figure out the connection to food.
Aside from making you feel rotten, food intolerances can also create long-term problems.
The good news is that once you figure out a food intolerance and eliminate it, you often feel much better nearly immediately.
Common food intolerances
The most common food intolerances are to:
- dairy (lactose intolerance or inflammatory reaction to milk proteins)
- yeast (Candida infections)
- grains (particularly to wheat gluten as well as similar proteins in barley, rye, and/or oats)
- fructose (fruit sugar) or other types of sugar
- fructooligosaccharides/inulins (aka FODMAPs, certain types of soluble fiber and indigestible carbohydrate, found in beans/legumes, fruits, and some vegetables, as well as in “fiber-added” products)
- salicylates, found in some juices, fruits (especially dried fruits), vegetables, spices, herbs, nuts, tea, wines, and coffee
- amines, often found in fermented and aged foods, such as cheese, wine, dark chocolate, soy sauce, preserved/smoked meats, canned/smoked fish, as well as colas and vegetable juices
- other food additives and preservatives (such as MSG)
- artificial sweeteners such as aspartame
“Trigger foods” are foods that somehow trigger you in a negative way, whether that’s:
- making poor food choices
- eating too much
- making you feel out of control
- making you feel bad emotionally or physically
For instance, many people have a few bottles of beer in their fridge. They can come home from a tough day, pop a cold one, drink that one beer, and feel satisfied. They might even forget that the rest of the beer bottles are in their fridge until they discover them weeks later, while hunting for mustard.
Alternatively, for other folks, beer is a trigger. One beer leads to many more beers. They struggle with stopping at just one. They may struggle with keeping any beer in their fridge without drinking it immediately.
Most people have some trigger foods. Each person’s trigger foods are unique.
Your red, yellow, and green lights
You can use the red-, yellow-, and green-light food system to sort out the foods you eat, and see which ones are helpful or harmful for you.
Red-light foods are foods that are just bad news for you. Maybe they make you feel sick, or they trigger you to eat too much, or you know they’re an unhealthy choice for you, etc. Red means “no go”.
Yellow-light foods are foods that are sometimes OK, sometimes not. Maybe you can eat a little bit without feeling ill, or you can eat them sanely at a restaurant with others but not at home alone, or you can have them as an occasional treat, etc. Yellow means “approach with caution”.
Green-light foods are foods that make you feel good mentally and physically, and that you can eat normally and mindfully, without overdoing it. Green means “go for it!”
Here’s a form that you can use to fill in your red-, yellow-, and green-light foods as you notice them.
Red Yellow Green Foods
Red-light foods aren’t necessarily “bad” foods.
These foods just don’t work for you or your body, either psychologically or physically.
For instance, maybe shrimp or garlic makes your face blow up like a balloon, while your friends can eat it just fine.
Or, maybe you feel uncontrollably tempted by nut butter, and struggle to focus on anything else until it’s gone. That’s normal.
Red light foods are foods that simply aren’t right for you and your goals at the moment. That’s all.
In the future, perhaps red-light foods will become yellow-light foods. Yellow-light foods may become green-light foods.
Or you may eventually decide that your red-light foods aren’t so appealing after all, and they’ll drop-off your food list entirely.
Track the triggers
Not everyone has food allergies, intolerances, or trigger foods. Most foods are tolerable and are nothing to be afraid of. If you sometimes have discomfort or symptoms, it’s not necessarily linked to a specific food complication.
However, if you have the kinds of physical, mental, emotional, or behavioral symptoms we just described, it may be worth some time hunting for potential food triggers.
Remember that it can sometimes take symptoms a while to appear after you eat a certain food.
If you have suspicions:
- Try narrowing it down using the list of common culprits above.
- Then, try eliminating one food at a time and see if you notice any effects.
By the way—you can also have good triggers: Foods that make you feel lighter, leaner, and full of energy.
Take note of these as well and stock up.