Still revered as the father of medicine, the famous Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” It’s true, the things we eat can be the greatest sources of optimal health, but they can also be the opposition. For most Americans, as well as others in developed nations, food has become a poor source of nutrition and a major contributor to the multitude of symptoms experienced daily.Symptoms such as irritable bowels, joint aches, fatigue, headaches and chronic sinus problems can all be linked to food. Sometimes, the link is minor, but many patients get dramatic relief once they pinpoint the food trigger and remove it from their diet.

Is this an indicator of true food allergies? Perhaps, but a better term might be food intolerance. There is a difference. The body has multiple mechanisms in which it reacts to a foreign substance. If someone eats seafood and immediately swells in the face, this is a serious allergic reaction. In this case, the food must be avoided and the patient carefully monitored. This type of reaction is termed immediate hypersensitivity.

Other reactions might take place over a time span of 30 minutes to 6 hours, or in some instances, over days. This type of response is different from what is normally considered an allergy, as it occurs through a different mechanism and might be a result of either delayed hypersensitivity, a type of allergy, or food intolerance. This information has significant implications for a person trying to find a link between food and a given health problem. For example, a woman might have an intolerance to milk. If she has a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a glass of milk with lunch, and then ice cream after dinner, she has potentially had a food trigger in her body nearly the entire day. If a problem such as constipation or bloating occurs 2-4 hours after a meal, she will have a hard time associating the symptom with its probable cause due to the time elapsed.

There are various ways to assess food allergies and intolerances. Skin testing done through an allergist will typically show reactions that are more immediate. These reactions are important, but this testing typically doesn’t show the delayed responses associated with intolerances. Blood testing kits are available from medical labs to give the patient and their provider a starting block for targeting foods that might be problematic. Testing aside, a food intolerance can still go undetected. One of the most accurate ways to assess the body and its reaction to particular foods is through a food elimination diet.

The idea is to pull questionable foods out of the diet for an extended period of time, usually 2-3 weeks. It’s normal that the first several days can actually cause a flare in symptoms. Keeping an accurate food diary listing all foods consumed, how they were prepared, and any and all symptoms felt is essential and should be reviewed regularly, preferably with a healthcare provider.

At the end of the elimination period (again, usually 2-3 weeks), add one of the suspect foods back into your diet for a day and return to the elimination diet for the following two days. During this step, consider these questions: Did this aggravate any symptoms? Do I feel bloated? Did my joints start to ache again? Am I congested? Document any symptoms. If symptoms return, you have discovered an intolerance. If no symptoms occurred, this food is not a trigger for you. Consider other food groups to eliminate.

Learn about commonly problematic foods that you should consider avoiding.