Updated: January 2020
Inconsistent food sensitivities are frustrating and make it difficult to know what to eat. A food bothers you one day, but not the next! Inconsistency can also create doubt - from medical professionals, friends, family, and even self-doubt. Here are some tips for living well with inconsistent food sensitivities.
Why Are Food Sensitivities Inconsistent?
Understanding why food sensitivities can be inconsistent will help you move past them.
Natural food compounds are variable. Food is composed of many naturally occurring compounds - such as salicylates, oxalates, histamine, vitamins, minerals, etc. These compounds vary - even within the same food. For example, an orange may be high in salicylates, but a different orange may not be (even the same variety). Therefore, inconsistent reactions are common with natural food compound sensitivity. If you experience symptoms after eating a particular food with high levels of a natural compound, it does not mean you are sensitive to that food. You will likely be fine the next time you eat it. Unfortunately, we don’t have accurate tests to know which foods are high in natural compounds or to diagnose who is truly sensitive.
The trigger may not be food. Many different events trigger symptoms. Food is the easiest thing to monitor and control, so people with mysterious symptoms often focus on pinpointing food triggers. See Is it Food Sensitivity?
Symptoms may be a combination of factors (rather than food only). Food sensitivities can be hard to pinpoint because other factors may impact how your body reacts to 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 food. Intense exercise and alcohol are examples that increase sensitivity to food allergens.
The process of digestion can lead to symptoms. When you experience food-related symptoms, it is natural to search for specific food triggers. However, it may not be specific foods. If your digestive system is not functioning well, you may experience symptoms no matter what you eat. Clients typically have identified some food triggers (e.g. foods that consistently bother them), but they still have symptoms, even on their “safe diet.” These symptoms may be from the physiological process of eating/digestion. If the digestion process is triggering symptoms, searching for a specific food trigger or a safe diet will be counterproductive. It would be more helpful to focus on calming the digestive system.
The Search for Triggers May Cause More Problems Than It Solves
It can be helpful to systematically search for your triggers (see Step-by-Step Guide to Food Sensitivity Journals), but if it goes too far, the search will cause additional problems. Constantly analyzing your diet and symptoms can monopolize your life and take away from other things that make you happy. Also, it is easy to get stuck in the Food Fear & Symptom Cycle.
Living with Inconsistent Food Triggers
Inconsistent food sensitivity makes life uncertain. How am I going to feel tomorrow? Will I be able to eat anything at the wedding?
Accepting this uncertainty is challenging. However, acceptance is the best pathway to change (which is a strange paradox).
Short “acceptance breaks” is a helpful strategy. Here’s a typical example “For two weeks, I will acknowledge my unpleasant symptoms, but I will not ruminate over potential triggers.”
Another strategy is a “scrapbook journal.” If you suspect that food may have triggered your symptoms, don't eliminate it. Record your suspicion (food, symptoms, timing, etc.) and carry on. A journal can be helpful, but rereading your suspicion each time you open the journal can affect your perception of the food. An alternative is to write the information on a scrap of paper and put it in an envelope. Once you have several slips of paper, review them to see if there is a pattern. If the foods are random, your symptoms are probably not related to specific foods. A healthcare professional, such as a dietitian, can help you review your information to see if there is a pattern.
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