Is it Food Sensitivity?

Pinpointing the cause of mysterious symptoms is challenging. In some cases, the search for illusive food sensitivity triggers causes more suffering than the original symptoms.

Symptoms are often (sometimes inaccurately) blamed on diet.  I see this quite frequently in my work with clients.  A dramatic example was a client that was only eating three foods. She thought that she was allergic to all food, because she still had symptoms, despite her restrictions. Several months before I met her, she was told to follow a gluten and dairy-free diet. Her symptoms slightly improved, so she searched the internet for other potentially problematic foods – leading to further and further restrictions. After our work together, she realized that food was not the cause of her symptoms, and she went back on her regular diet. She still had the symptoms, but enjoyed her meals and let go of the futile struggle to find a “safe” diet. Additionally, she was better nourished and able to focus her energy on finding other helpful lifestyle changes.  The above example is dramatic, but I see this to a milder extent with many clients.

Symptoms are often a combination of internal and external triggers.  Most symptoms are triggered by many things. It’s helpful to think of internal and external triggers.

  • internal triggers (changes within the body) – hormonal changes, disease status, body chemicals, etc.
  • external triggers – food, inhaled substances (pollen, dust, perfume, chemicals, etc.), air temperature, movement, etc.

When symptoms have many triggers, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what they are. Sometimes the triggers are cumulative. A common example is a client with hay fever that has more food sensitivity during pollen season. Food is the only trigger that can be monitored (you know exactly what you’ve eaten), so clients often want diet to be the trigger. When symptoms occur, a common thought is “What food caused this?”  It may be a food, but not always.

The process of digestion can lead to symptoms. This is a possible explanation why some people experience symptoms with all (or most) meals. Digestions is a complicated process. Hormones and other body chemicals are released, muscles work hard to push food through the digestive tube, the brain, nervous and digestive systems must communicate, mast cells may degranulate, etc. These processes may lead to digestive symptoms in susceptible individuals. It is natural to assume that the cause is food sensitivity, but the search for a trigger(s) will be futile.

Adopt an observation mindset rather than a reaction mindset. I would describe a reaction mindset as immediately reacting to events and an observation mindset as taking a breath and more calmly making decisions. This is a lot easier said than done! Personally, I’m still working on it. Here are some ways this concept applies to food sensitivity:

  • If you suspect that a 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 every 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 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.
  • If you are keeping a food and symptom diary, keep track of other factors that may influence your symptoms, such as emotional changes, weather, inhaled triggers, etc.
  • If you react to a meal that you can usually eat without difficulty, another factor(s) may have increased your susceptibility to food sensitivity. In addition to the hay fever example above, alcohol is another common factor that increases the risk of food sensitivity.

Not sure if your symptoms are related to food? I can help you work through this and find a meal plan that works for you.

6 comments on “Is it Food Sensitivity?
  1. Brenda says:

    Thank you for that article. I reread it a few times. As a result I relaxed and had a great Easter with friends at a buffet. And of course I had no adverse reaction to it. I had indeed eliminated foods from certain categories without having had a reaction to them and had not considered the effect of the environment on my digestive system. I am finding out the effect is considerable and may be larger than any food effects.

    A little background- I was unofficially diagnosed as Celiac 6 years ago but never got fully well. I think I have a mast cell activation disorder and yes, I do have an appointment next month with a Dr that is supposed to be knowledgable in the diagnosis and treatment of MCAS.

    Thanks again and I am looking forward to more of your sensible blogs!

  2. Tammy says:

    The most difficult thing is knowing the timing between eating and a reaction. Sometimes I feel a reaction right away, but sometimes it happens hours later. It gets confusing.

    • Wendy says:

      I agree with you. Inconsistent timing makes it challenging to pinpoint food sensitivities. To make it worse, the delayed symptoms may also be related to non-food triggers, which adds to the confusion. A Food and Symptom Diary may be helpful. If you want a blank template, e-mail me at

      • Tammy says:

        I’ve done that but sometimes a food bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t. So it was hard to see a pattern.

        • Wendy says:

          I hear this from a lot of clients and your frustration is completely understandable. Food sensitivities seem to increase when other things are not going well. Stress and infections are common factors. If you need to reintroduce food into your diet, comparison food challenges are a good approach with inconsistent food reactions. Basically, you compare your symptoms for a period of time on your usual diet, with a period of time eating the new food(s). Two weeks is a typical time period. If you would like help with this, please consider working with me.

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