The majority of nutrition coaching I do involves functional gastrointestinal disorders like IBS which means I am always on the lookout for potential food sensitivities. The different layers of functional gastrointestinal disorders often include an overactive immune system, a compromised intestinal lining and dysbiosis (a change in the gut microbiome i.e. lack of good bacteria) all which can lead to increasing food sensitivities or reactions over time. Because finding foods that work for you is such an important part of your nutrition, I wanted to share what different food sensitivities look like and what to look out for. If you suspect you might be reacting to something, I highly recommend investigating this with a health professional (oh hi, hey, hello!) so that you don’t restrict your diet unnecessarily and miss out on important nutrients! 

What is a food sensitivity?

The term food sensitivity is a catch-all phrase for any food that causes a negative reaction. While there are many ways to be sensitive to a food, this should not be confused with potentially life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis). 

What are the symptoms of a food sensitivity?

Just as there are many ways to be sensitive to a food, there are many ways that a sensitivity will show itself. The more common symptoms that can occur are:

  • Digestive issues like gas, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhoea
  • Headaches, migraines
  • Skin issues like eczema, psoriasis
  • Stuffy nose
  • Itchy eyes
  • Itchy skin
  • Joint pain, swelling
  • Pain or tenderness in the abdomen

What are the different types of food sensitivities?

IgG Sensitivities

These are the type of sensitivities that most people refer to with the term “food sensitivity”.  The most common IgG sensitivities are gluten, dairy, corn, eggs, soy and peanuts, though I am seeing almond sensitivities more and more. IgG is a type of antibody that forms immune complexes that can travel throughout the blood and show up in various sites in the body. Symptoms can show anywhere in the body from headaches to sinus issues to eczema to joint pain to digestive symptoms. 

The presence of IgG sensitivities and testing for them is a controversial topic in the medical field. The information gleaned from a blood test is not 100% accurate because your immune system may create an antibody to a food without it actually causing any problems. So, if you‘ve received a food sensitivity test that shows multiple sensitivities to all sorts of foods, don’t blindly stop eating all of them as this speaks more to the terrain of the gut rather than sensitivities. More sensitivities on a test likely means that the gut needs to love and repairing.

Histamine Intolerance

This occurs when you lacks the enzyme that breaks down ingested histamine or if your gut health is compromised and is not able to handle the load of histamine as fast as it is accumulating. Histamine intolerance looks like headaches, sneezing, itchy and watery eyes, gastrointestinal upset, hives, itchy skin. Certain foods are naturally high in histamine: spinach, fermented foods, tomato, cheese, beer, wine, chocolate, aged meats, bone broth and canned fish. Foods that aren’t high in histamine but can act as histamine liberators include eggs, pork, raspberries, strawberries, citrus fruits.

Salicylates

Salicylates are natural plant substances which can help the plant defend itself against bacteria, fungi and other pests. Some people are sensitive to the small amount of salicylate in foods such as nightshade vegetables, radish, zucchini, berries, avocado, coconut and olive oils. Symptoms of a salicylate include itching, stomach pain/nausea, headaches, puffy or burning eyes and sinus congestion.

Carbohydrate Malabsorption

This occurs when one lacks the enzyme to break down certain carbohydrates, thus causing GI distress with lots of gas and bloating. 

FODMAP Sensitivity

FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrate molecules that some people with IBS aren’t able to digest properly. When eaten, they pass through the small intestine unbroken down and draw water into the intestines: thus causing gas, bloating constipation and/or diarrhoea. Since FODMAPs are found in all carbohydrates and impossible to remove completely, we use the Low FODMAP diet to find out which high FOMDAP foods you do and don’t tolerate. The Low FODMAP diet was a game changer for me and I’m a huge proponent of it.

Knowing your food sensitivities are an important part of gaining control over IBS symptoms. An elimination diet is the best way to find out what foods you are sensitive to. An elimination diet is just as it sounds: eliminating a set of foods for a period of two to six weeks or until symptoms go away. At that point, you introduce the foods strategically one at a time to see which ones cause symptoms. A word of caution: don’t try to eliminate all potential sensitivities at once! Meaning, don’t try to avoid all the common IgG sensitivities, salicylates, FODMAPs AND high histamine foods- you’ll be living on air at that point.

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