Food sensitivities can be a total pain—sometimes literally—and are more common than you think. That’s because it’s super-easy to shrug off the symptoms as something else.
To make matters even more confusing: “Food sensitivity symptoms aren’t always instant, meaning you eat something today but your reaction to it may take up to 48 hours to appear,” says Johane Filemon, R.D.N., a dietitian practicing in Georgia. Plus, two people might be sensitive to the same food, but experience completely different symptoms.
“If you suspect you’re sensitive to a certain food, one of the best and most cost-effective ways to find out is through an elimination diet,” says Deborah Allinger, R.D., clinical dietitian for Syosset Hospital, Northwell Health in New York. Ghost the suspected food for a month, and then slowly reintroduce it into your diet—say, by adding one serving per week to gauge how much of the food you can tolerate before symptoms kick in. “It’s important to monitor how you feel when you’re not consuming the food in question, as well as possible reactions after it’s reintroduced,” says Allinger.
After you’ve zeroed in on the possible offenders, discuss your findings with your doc or dietitian. He or she can help you confirm your sensitivities—and, if you do need to nix certain foods from your diet, ensure you’re scoring the important nutrients found in those foods from other sources.
Below, seven sneaky signs of a food sensitivity (that, odds are, you’ve been blaming on PMS this entire time):
common culprits: dairy, soy, corn, gluten
When you regularly eat foods that your body doesn’t get along with, it creates inflammation and immune responses that your body has to work overtime to resolve, says Frank Lipman, M.D., author of How to Be Well. So instead of your favorite eats fueling you, they sap your energy and leave you feeling crummy. Also check out 6 FOOD TRENDS TO CONSUME THIS YEAR
2. Joint pain and muscle aches
common culprits: soy, gluten, eggs, corn, yeast, sugar, peanuts
You might think that your body pain is because of that tough workout you barely survived, but it might also be a result of what you’re noshing on. “Certain food components or chemicals can trigger both inflammatory responses and damage to the gut,” says Lisa Booth, R.D., 8fit registered dietitian and health coach. “When the gut lining is damaged, these chemicals can invade the bloodstream without being fully digested.” Your body will become inflamed as a result of your immune system attacking these invaders, causing aches and pains. Also click here for more info on muscle aches.
Common culprits: Processed foods, cured meats (hot dogs, bacon, sausage, luncheon meats)
A headache can be triggered by a wide variety of foods, but they’re most often linked to processed foods because of the scroll of additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners they contain. Nitrates and nitrites—chemicals used to preserve processed and cured meats—have also been linked to headaches, says Allinger. “These food additives may cause blood vessels to dilate, which may trigger headaches in some individuals who may be sensitive,” she says. Find out more about processed food here.
4. Weight gain
Common culprits: Refined carbs, added sugars, highly processed meats
When you repeatedly eat a food that your body can’t fully digest, inflammation is your body’s natural response. “Chronic inflammation has been linked to increased insulin production and insulin resistance,” says Allinger. “Since insulin is a fat-storage hormone, you can gain weight as a result.” There’s also an uptick in cortisol (the stress hormone) during inflammation, which can lead to belly fat. Click here to find what’s the best diet for weight loss.
5. Mood swings
Common culprits: Wheat, dairy, fruit
If you feel chill one minute and like that guy in The Shining the next, your hidden intolerances could be making you intolerant. An intolerance means that your body lacks the enzyme needed to break down certain carbs in foods, explains Booth. When the carb isn’t digested properly, it becomes fermented by bacteria in the gut—enter pain, gas, bloating, and irritation. “With 90 percent of serotonin (the happy hormone) coming from your gut, it’s essentially your ‘second brain’ and is heavily involved in your mental state,” says Booth. “So when your stomach is unhappy, your mood becomes volatile as a result.” And the more of the food you consume, the worse the effect becomes—hence why nothing happens following that splash of milk in your coffee, but you feel looney tunes for days following an ice cream binge. Check this out for ways to tackle your mood swings.
6. Anxiety and dizziness
Common culprits: Fermented foods (wine, aged cheese, cured meats)
Histamines are chemicals found in the body’s cells, as well as in certain foods. When you’re sensitive to a specific food or drink, histamines and other chemicals are released into the bloodstream and trigger an immune response, says New York–based registered dietitian Maya Feller, R.D. In a healthy person, histamines are broken down by an enzyme—diamine oxidase, or DAO—and if your body’s low on this enzyme or is sensitive to histamine-rich foods (or both), the overload of histamines can lead to pesky symptoms like anxiety and dizziness (as well as fatigue and mood swings, FYI). Read this for tips to reduce anxiety.