What’s a Food Sensitivity?


Do you ever wake up Monday morning with a slight headache, brain fog, sluggish feeling and maybe a little heavier than you did on Friday? Not such a great feeling, right? I used to attribute my “case of the Mondays” to my overindulgence of wine and eating out over the weekend. However, when I felt my energy levels down on each subsequent day of the week to the point where it became my “new norm” – I knew something was up.

Food sensitivities can have a very sneaky effect on someone. At one point in you’re life you are eating slices of pizza at 2am on the way home from the bars, and the next thing you know that behavior is giving you a stomachache and putting you on the couch for the next 24 hours. (Okay maybe that’s just me).

It’s almost like I didn’t notice the small differences until a major change occurred. It can take up to a full 72 hours to feel the symptoms of food sensitivities, which include (and are not limited to) headaches, bloating, brain fog and gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort. Therefore, pinpointing the actual cause can be a huge puzzle! We’re most likely to pin the discomfort on extra drinking or a night out of eating we had that week. Here is another curve ball: food sensitivities can occur at different stages of life depending on your digestive health. For women, most food sensitivities will manifest in their late 20s. (Going back to my pizza example on that one). Don’t worry, I have some solutions.

Before we dive into it, I want to make the point to understand the difference between food a sensitivity and a food allergy:

Food Allergy: An immune system reaction to a particular food. Symptom onset is usually rapid, mild to severe, and may include swelling of airways, hives, wheezing and nausea. In rare cases, a severe life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis can occur. Reaction involves the antibody, Immunoglobulin E (IgE). Foods that cause an allergy need to be avoided completely.

Food Sensitivity: Delayed food reaction that involves the digestive system. Non-immune. Symptoms produced by a specific antibody exposure, most commonly Immunoglobulin G (IgG).

Within nutrition counseling, I’ve spoken to many people that have experienced the feeling of low energy, mind fog and difficulty losing weight. I believe that on a certain level our culture and lifestyle allows us to live with those symptoms because it “is the norm”… five to six hours of sleep, eating on the go, little exercise – no wonder many of us feel that way! It is time to switch this belief that low-energy is the status quo and acknowledge that we do NOT need to depend on a cup of coffee each morning and we do not need to accept living with stomachaches. We absolutely can wake up feeling rested, we can wake up with clear skin and bright eyes and we CAN lose that unwanted weight! It simply all comes down to digestive health.

A healthy digestive track does more than simply break down food. A healthy digestive track releases enzymes to better absorb vitamins and minerals. It also is one of our body’s biggest defenses against disease, as it creates a barrier for bad bacteria to enter our bloodstream. When your GI system is irritated and inflamed from stress, lifestyle and the wrong types of foods, our immune system, nutrition status and ability to loose weight is all compromised.

A healthy diet (and thus healthy digestive tract) starts with wholesome, nutritious foods that includes an abundance of vegetables, fruit, lean protein and limited processed food. However, when we begin to constantly feel those GI symptoms despite our greatest efforts, that’s when we need to start looking at our diet differently and looking into food sensitivities.

When I first started experiencing uncomfortable GI symptoms last fall, along with crazy low energy, I decided to do an elimination diet. This is a great first step for anyone who thinks they may be gluten sensitive or affected by any other sensitivity. For three weeks, you need to eliminate our top most common food allergies, as well as alcohol. (The alcohol only does harm to our digestive track, so we eliminate this in order to re-establish healthy bacteria in the gut and reduce inflammation.)

Celiac disease runs in my family, which led me to the quick conclusion that gluten was my enemy. To understand this completely, Celiac is an autoimmune disease that is genetically passed down. The gene can be turned “on” by an illness or another trigger, thus you don’t necessarily have to display the symptoms from birth (even though you are a carrier) and can get Celiac at any stage of life.

As the knowledge base of Celiac disease became more common, so did the fad diet of going gluten-free. According to the National Institute of Health, one out of every 133 people in the United States has Celiac. As I mentioned before, sensitivities are hard to diagnose and we do need to understand the difference between this autoimmune disease and a sensitivity to gluten.

For the elimination diet to be successful, we need to take away the following eight foods most common to allergies and sensitivities (plus alcohol).

Gluten. Dairy. Corn. Peanut. Soy. Egg. Shellfish. Alcohol.

I know this seems pretty tough, but if you have a strong support system and start with a menu plan – there are MANY delicious foods to eat and I promise you won’t feel too deprived other than those initial sugar cravings. (And those sugar cravings DO go away after a few days!). After those three weeks, start adding one food back at a time into your diet. Wait 48 hours, if no reaction occurs you can reintroduce and move onto the next food group.

The elimination diet involves a lot of motivation and big behavior changes. You will see results only if you stick to the plan and allow your body to recover from the foods that you’ve been eating previously. If you are having trouble sticking to this program or are still having negative reactions with food afterwards, an IgG food sensitivity test will provide quick results of your sensitivity to the top 24 to even top 100 most common foods. Although this is the more expensive route, this blood test provides science-based knowledge that allows you to take action right away and leave any questions behind.

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.”

I ended up getting an IgG food sensitivity test following my elimination trial and holy surprise, I’m not one OUNCE sensitive to gluten! It was a true testament that food sensitivities are unique to every single individual. I feel 110% better now that I’ve changed my diet to eliminate the big food groups that really don’t like my body … and hey, I don’t like them back solely because I feel so much better without them! Bon voyage!

Whether you choose an elimination diet, IgG test or both … remember that it is okay to feel overwhelmed at first and that habits do not change overnight. We all need support to make lasting behavior changes and sometimes it takes those positive results (more energy, less allergies, weight loss or getting rid of irritable bowel) to really get the motivation going! Take time to find a Registered Dietitian that can help guide you in these positive dietary changes. Surround yourself with family and friends that support your health and happiness and finally, who will be there to join in on making fun, new recipes. You’ve got this!

Eat Nutrition

About Patty Duffey

Patty is a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Coach in the Chicago area. She is Ohio bred and received her bachelor’s degree in dietetics at Miami of Ohio, while continuing on the following year to complete her Dietetic Internship at Mount Carmel Hospitals in Columbus. Upon becoming an RD, Patty made the remarkable decision to work abroad in Australia for one year. She loved the active and healthy culture, and it seemed that most Aussies shared a common view that is was better to be proactive as opposed to reactive when it came to health and wellbeing. She knew that the health and fitness industry was exactly where she wanted to be. Since moving to Chicago three years ago, Patty has gained experience as a dietitian and nutrition coach at both Life Time Fitness and My Fit Foods. Her goal is to continue to build her health coaching skills as a nutrition entrepreneur. She currently works at Lululemon and loves working for a company where she can bring fitness and nutrition together in such an inspiring environment!