Inconsistent food sensitivities are frustrating! A food bothers you one day, but not the next. It’s hard to know what to eat! Inconsistency can also create doubt - from medical professionals, friends, family, and even self-doubt. Understanding why food sensitivities are often inconsistent is an important first step to feeling better.
Why Are Food Sensitivities Inconsistent?
Natural food compounds are variable. Food is composed of many naturally occurring compounds - such as salicylates, oxalates, histamine, vitamins, etc. These compounds vary a great deal - even within the same food. For example, an apple may be high in salicylates, but a different apple (even the same variety) may be low. If you are sensitive to salicylates, you would have inconsistent reactions. Unfortunately, there is very little known about this topic, and we don’t have accurate tests to know exactly which foods are high in these compounds or tests to diagnose who is truly sensitive. The good news is that experiencing symptoms after eating a particular food, does not mean you are sensitive to that food. It may be the high level of natural chemicals in that specific food, and you will be fine the next time you eat it.
Symptoms may be a combination of factors, rather than just food. Food sensitivities can be hard to pinpoint, because other factors may impact how your body reacts to a food. You have probably read about the “bucket theory” (triggers accumulate to cause symptoms). Using histamine intolerance as an example, a food high in histamine may not bother you, if your overall blood histamine level is low. But, if your “bucket is full”, a high histamine meal may put you over the top. In addition to the “bucket theory”, other factors can make you more sensitive to foods. Intense exercise is an example, that makes some people more sensitive to food allergens.
Symptoms may result from the physiological process of eating/digestion, rather than specific food triggers. When you experience food-related symptoms, it is natural to search for specific food triggers. However, the physiological process of eating and digestion may be the trigger. When you have a particularly bad reaction, your digestive system may be a little “twitchy” at that time. You may have had symptoms no matter what you ate. In my experience, clients typically have identified some food triggers (e.g. foods that consistently make them worse), but they still feel some symptoms when eating, even on their “safe diet”. These symptoms may be from the physiological process of eating/digestion.
The trigger may not be food. Symptoms can be triggered by many different events. Food is the easiest to monitor and control, so many people with mysterious symptoms focus on trying to pinpoint food triggers. If you have been doing this, and have not been able to pinpoint exact triggers, food might not be the culprit. Is it Food Sensitivity? explores this topic further.
Searching for Illusive Food Triggers May Cause More Problems Than It Solves
Constantly analyzing symptoms and trying to figure out precise triggers sucks up time and energy. Frustration builds and builds. It may also lead to incorrectly blaming certain foods and unnecessary restrictions.
Accepting Inconsistent Food Triggers
Accepting this inconsistency can free your time and energy for meaningful progress in other areas of your wellness journey. This is a tough challenge because accepting inconsistency means accepting uncertainty (and uncertainty is a universal fear). There isn’t an easy, quick solution. It is a lifetime journey. The first step is to understand why food sensitivities may be inconsistent (see above). It may not be possible to precisely identify all your triggers. One strategy that has helped clients move toward acceptance is short, “acceptance breaks”. Here’s a typical example of a two week “acceptance break” - for that time period, the client acknowledges their unpleasant symptoms, but does not ruminate over the potential triggers.
Another strategy is a “potential food trigger journal”. If you suspect that a food may have triggered your symptoms, don't eliminate it. There may be other reasons that you the food bothered you (e.g. changes in natural chemicals). Record your suspicion (food, symptoms, timing, etc.) and carry on. A journal can be helpful but rereading your suspicion every time you open the journal can affect your perception of the food. An alternative is to write the information on a small piece of paper and put it in an envelope. Once you have several pieces of paper, review them to see if there is a pattern. If you are working with a dietitian, send the list to them. If the foods are random, your symptoms are probably not related to specific foods.
Need help moving past your inconsistent food sensitivities? I can help you get your life back on track.