This is a lengthier article than usual so print it out and read it while you are on the treadmill or bike. It’s worth it!
Did you know that much of that “extra weight” you are carrying could be the result of food allergies? In fact, most of us have one or more food allergies that we don’t yet know about and weight gain is not their only side effect. These hidden food allergies have also been linked to other common health conditions such as fatigue, chronic sinusitis, digestive and bowel issues, and just general inflammation, just to name a few.
The main reason that many of these detox diets and cleanses that are so popular now cause you to lose weight so quickly is because the first thing they do is eliminate gluten and milk products from your diet—the two most common food allergies. The thinking here is that over time your body has developed an intolerance for these particular foods and the elimination of them gives your body the break it’s been waiting for. Some people are so sensitive to these foods that their weight can fluctuate 3-4 pounds in just a 24-hour period!
Because foods that contain gluten and milk such as cereal, bread, pasta, and cheese are staples for most of us, this is fast becoming a major health concern in our country. So you may be thinking, “How can we suddenly be allergic to foods that have been such a major part of our diets for so long?” In this article, I intend to examine what causes of food allergies as well as how to identify and manage them.
The issue of food allergies and food intolerance (I will address the distinction later) is a fairly new concept and relatively little is cited in the medical literature about it. In fact, physicians are just beginning to look at this issue. According to one physician, Dr. Rudy Rivera, the increased pollution and stress in the world has worn down our defense mechanisms and are leading to increased intolerance. In his book, Your Hidden Food Allergies Are Making You Fat, Dr. Rivera writes, “Estimates on the prevalence of food intolerance range from 30 percent to 90 percent of the population suffering from some degree of the condition.” In fact, most Americans are allergic or sensitive to one or more foods and the worse part is that we consume at least one of these foods every day.
The good news here is that food allergies and intolerances may be the reason for “stubborn fat”—fat that doesn’t disappear no matter how diligently you diet and exercise. Why is this good news? Because by this logic if you identify the foods to which you are allergic or intolerant, you can simply eliminate them from your diet and resolve your weight issue, or at least part of it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not that simple. The complications here are in identifying the guilty foods and then mustering up the will power to avoid them, sometimes for a long time (not necessarily forever) if you wish to manage your weight.
Allergies vs. Intolerances
While there are similarities between an allergy and an intolerance, they are two separate physiological conditions. An allergy is, by definition, an immune response. Dorland’s medical Dictionary defines it as “a state of hypersensitivity induced by exposure to a particular antigen (allergen) resulting in harmful immunologic reactions on subsequent exposures.” Leave it to doctors and lawyers to make things so complicated (I used to be a lawyer so I should know). Stated more simply, a food allergy is an immune system response to what the body considers to be a foreign invader. In fact, environmental or other allergies can produce the same results and they often do.
Until recently, it was believed that a food intolerance or sensitivity does not involve the immune system at all, and yet its effects on the body can be just as severe. The common understanding is that an allergy tends to attack the body quickly, often within seconds after eating or breathing the offending substance. Some of the symptoms associated with allergies are sinus congestion, hyperactivity or restlessness, rapid increase in heart rate and/or blood pressure, headache, hyperventilation and, in some cases, anaphylactic shock.
Conversely, an intolerance can affect the body up to seven days later, making it difficult to connect the reaction with the food. Some of the symptoms associated with food intolerance are water retention or stomach distension, weight gain, constipation, diarrhea, joint pain, and severe food cravings. An allergy is a true immune system response, but an intolerance may be caused by digestive, enzymatic, or hormonal disruptions. So food intolerance, not food allergy, is more commonly linked to weight gain.
The most widely known example of food intolerance is lactose intolerance, as with cow’s milk. Another one is gluten intolerance, as with wheat products. This may be a good time for a brief mention of chemical food additives. Because chemical food additives are typically “unnatural” substances, intolerance or sensitivities to them are quite common and almost always accompany food allergies. Probably the best example of a reactive chemical additive is monosodium glutamate or MSG, a taste enhancer found in many fast foods and prepackaged foods. Reactions to food additives tend to be like “allergic” reactions, that is, immediate and quite severe reactions like hives or migraines.
The line between an allergy and an intolerance has become blurred by a more recently discovered phenomenon called “hidden” or “delayed-onset” food allergies. Unlike the more commonly known, but rarely occurring immediate-onset food allergies, hidden food allergies are much more prevalent and far more subtle.
The affects of hidden food allergies can be much more insidious than immediate reaction allergies. In fact, the symptoms associated with this type of allergy are very often the same symptoms caused by food intolerances, with weight gain and digestive disturbances being the most common. And like food intolerances, these delayed reactions often appear anywhere from two hours to several days after consuming the allergic foods. Because hidden food allergies so often are undetected and untreated, they also lie behind many chronic medical conditions of unknown cause. These chronically ill people suffer for years, even decades, without ever suspecting that their health problems are rooted in what they eat. Examples of these conditions are chronic pain syndromes, such as rheumatoid arthritis and migraines.
In his book, Food Allergy Relief, Dr. James Braly, M.D., gives an overview of the important differences between immediate and delayed-onset/hidden food allergies:
i. Immediate food allergies are much more common in children than in adults, and very often children grow out of these allergies (e.g., allergies to peanuts or shellfish);
ii. Hidden food allergies are now believed to be the most common form of food allergy in children and adults;
iii. Immediate-onset food allergies typically involve one or two foods in the diet, delayed-onset reactions involve three to twenty foods;
iv. Immediate food allergies involve foods that are rarely eaten, whereas hidden food allergies commonly involve foods you eat every day or crave on a regular basis;
v. While immediate reactions to foods primarily affect the skin, the airways, and the digestive tract, virtually any tissue, organ, or system of the body can be affected by hidden food allergies;
vi. Immediate-onset food allergies tend to be permanent, fixed allergies, whereas hidden food allergies may typically be cleared after avoiding the offending food for three to six months.
After reviewing the characteristics of food intolerances and hidden food allergies, it’s easy to see why the lines have become blurred. While the mechanisms by which these two separate conditions are quite different (an intolerance does not involve an immune system response), the symptoms and results are quite similar and in many cases identical. In fact, people who have true food allergies almost always have food intolerances and hidden food allergies. Meanwhile, hidden or delayed-onset food allergies affect up to 90% of the population and can lead to a long list of more serious medical conditions, such as:
i. anxiety, panic attacks
iii. attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD)
xi. fatigue, chronic
xiii. headaches, including migraines
xiv. inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, celiac)
xv. iron deficiency anemia
xvi. irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
xvii. middle ear disease
xix. rheumatoid arthritis
xx. sleep disorders
While these are serious issues and the list goes on and on, let’s take a closer look at the most common result of a hidden food allergies or intolerance – weight gain.
How Does A Food Allergy/Intolerance Make Us Overweight?
There are a number of mechanisms by which food allergies cause weight gain. Carol Simontacchi, author of Your Fat Is Not Your Fault and Crazy Makers, writes:
“As the body is continually bombarded with substances to which it is reactive, it hangs onto excess water. This condition is called edema. Some individuals lose upwards of twenty or more pounds of excess water when they stop eating their allergic foods. At least five to ten pounds are dropped almost immediately and does not return unless the allergic foods are re-introduced back into the diet prematurely.”
Dr. Elson Haas, author of The False Fat Diet, writes:
“When people regularly eat foods to which they are reactive, they invariably suffer tissue swelling, abdominal bloating, and metabolic disturbances that cause weight gain. The tissue swelling and abdominal bloating create a false fat that looks exactly like fat, but is not “true fat,” or adipose tissue. This false fat often adds the appearance of an extra ten to twenty-five pounds. The food reactions that cause false fat are almost never corrected by conventional weight loss diets.”
Metabolic changes occur in the body when it continually has to deal with allergens. Dr. Haas asserts that food allergies interfere with the hormonal balance of the thyroid and adrenal glands, making it harder for the body to burn stored energy. For example, the allergies slow down metabolism. Allergies disturb insulin levels, signaling the body to convert food into fat and contributing to hypoglycemia.
Food allergies also cause serotonin (a calming neurotransmitter) to plummet, leading to depression, anxiety, and compulsive urges, all of which trigger overeating. Allergies decrease energy, contribute to insomnia, and dysregulate immunity, all of which reduce the ability to exercise. They can cause increases in candida, which also causes chronic fatigue syndrome, bloating, and many other symptoms. Candida damages the intestinal lining, which exacerbates allergy potential.
So we see that food allergies can cause hypothyroidism, hormone imbalances, adrenal stress, mood disturbances, and other problems, all of which promote and lead to weight gain.
Why Do We Become Allergic/Intolerant?
While the immediate-onset type allergies tend to be genetic (i.e., they run in families) and continue unabated until death, delayed-onset allergies are typically acquired sometime after childhood. Some experts believe that we become allergic when we eat the same food too frequently.
Until this past century, people did not consume the same food every day of their lives. They ate seasonally, and the same foods were rarely available 365 days per year. The seasonality of the food supply gave the body a needed rest from certain foods, possibly breaking the cycle of potential allergic responses. In our fast-paced, prepackaged, Western culture, we tend to eat the same ten to twenty foods nearly every day of our lives, with little break in between exposures. This is why it is difficult to associate a reaction with a food. The food is in the system all the time. This is one reason I advocate rotating your foods throughout the week. The other reason to rotate your foods is to maximize your exposure to the full spectrum of nutrients available in our food supply.
Dr. Michael Murray, a naturopathic doctor and author of the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, believes there are several reasons for the dramatic increase in the incidence of hidden food allergies in recent years, including: increased stresses on the immune system, such as greater chemical pollution in the air, water, and food; earlier weaning and earlier introduction of solid foods to infants, genetic manipulation of plants resulting in food components which cross-react with normal tissues, and increased ingestion of fewer foods.
Another prevailing belief is that we become allergic because our digestive system is impaired. We don’t adequately or thoroughly digest our foods. When the acidity of the stomach is not ideal (too high or too low) or when adequate amounts of digestive enzymes are unavailable, the protein in the diet remains partially undigested, sending bits and pieces of proteins into the blood stream where they are attacked by the immune system. Partially digested proteins are seen as foreign invaders, inciting an immune or allergic response.
These digestive problems are exacerbated when the integrity of the intestinal wall is compromised by a high sugar diet, overgrowth of yeast (Candidiasis), parasites, illness, malnutrition, or other factors. Holes can open in the intestinal wall, making it even easier for undigested or partially digested food particles to slip into the blood stream. This is called “leaky gut syndrome.” The body then becomes highly reactive to commonly consumed foods. The exposure to allergens sets up an inflammatory process that continues to erode the integrity of the intestinal lining, stimulating cytokine release (toxins) in the blood stream, and otherwise elicits an immune response that results in allergy symptoms, which eventually lead to weight gain.
And finally, another cause of allergies or hypersensitivity is stress. The adrenal gland is the stress organ, and if stress becomes too great or chronic, the strength of the immune system is compromised, causing hypersensitivity to elements that normally would not cause a problem. I experienced this phenomenon first hand during the summer I was awaiting the results of the bar exam. I was in between jobs and my future was hinging on the outcome of that exam. It was one of the most stressful times in my life that I can remember. I had never suffered from hay fever or environmental allergies of any kind . . . until that summer. Whenever I would walk outside, my eyes would instantly swell up and begin watering uncontrollably. My nose would run constantly and even my breathing became impaired. These symptoms continued for only two months, until I received my exam results in the mail. The symptoms literally disappeared that very day. This was a dramatic demonstration of how stress can influence the immune system.
So now that we have a better idea of what hidden allergies are, why they can cause weight gain, and where they come from, let’s find out how we can detect them.
Detecting Food Allergies
As mentioned earlier, immediate-onset food allergies are fairly easy to detect. Typically, a small amount of a single food is involved and the allergic symptoms appear relatively quickly, within a few minutes to a couple of hours at the most. Consequently, they are usually self-diagnosed and you simply avoid the food that caused the reaction(s).
If you don’t want to wait until you get a reaction to discover which foods are trouble for you, you can always see an allergist who will conduct a series of skin prick tests using diluted solutions containing individual food extracts to attempt to elicit a skin rash reaction, indicating a positive reaction for allergy. This is both time consuming (because only one food can be tested at a time) and uncomfortable. The equivalent to this test is a blood test that looks for serum levels of food-specific IgE antibodies. This is called the IgE RAST test and it is only accurate for the immediate-onset, or Type 1, food allergy. These tests are without value when used to detect delayed-onset, or Type 3 allergies.
There are several ways to uncover a hidden food allergy. You can either go the do-it-yourself route (which is easier on the pocket and harder on patience), the blood test, muscle testing route, or the electrodermal test.
The blood test route is certainly the more clinical method, but it can get expensive and accuracy varies. The blood tests measure your production of certain antibodies. There are various types of Type 3 blood tests. One is the ALCAT test, which requires going to your doctor or a blood draw clinic and having several vials of blood drawn, which is later subjected to a battery of test substances, such as food extracts, food colorings, food additives, environmental chemicals, drugs, and other substances, and then run through a computerized hematology analyzer that measures changes in white blood cells and other cells. This test boasts an accuracy rate of 95%.
The other blood test, called the IgG ELISA test, is much less complicated and just as accurate. One ELISA lab recently developed a home-use version of the test that requires a mere finger prick. This test looks for serum levels of food-specific IgG antibodies (as opposed to the IgE antibodies measured with immediate-onset allergies), that are manifested with Type 3 allergies. The turnaround time with this test is about one to two weeks.
At this point, one of these allergy blood tests (which cost between $150 and $350) are covered by health insurance, but they certainly do save one a considerable amount of time and effort. The IgG blood test kit can be obtained from your nutritional consultant or other qualified health practitioner. Remember, it is expected that you will have anywhere from three to twenty reactive foods on your list. If you have a hormonal imbalance like hypothyroidism or adrenal fatigue, it is common to have more than twenty reactive foods. It is wise to have your nutritional consultant interpret the results and help you take the necessary steps to eliminate the allergies.
The muscle testing method, also known as the applied kinesiology method, is typically conducted by a trained practitioner. It involves placing a sample of the suspected allergen in the hand of the patient while the practitioner tests the patient’s ability to resist pressure applied to an outstretched arm or leg. This reliability and accuracy of this method depends highly on the neutrality and level of training and experience of the practitioner. One issue that can create a potential conflict of interest here is if the practitioner performing the test is also selling supplements or products to treat the allergy. Sometimes the practitioner will use a third party as an intermediary subject between the patient and the practitioner.
Electrodermal testing is a machine that is held by the patient and the electrical frequencies of food are tested against the body’s reaction to those foods. The brain interprets the electrical signal and elicits a skin resistance response which is read by the machine. This test is painless and a clear outline of food intolerances and the severity of intolerances is given. Foods do not have to have been consumed recently for valid results, although accuracy is increased if they have been consumed recently or are consumed frequently. This method is typically conducted by a naturopathic physician and can be quite expensive. Some practitioners do not accept the validity of the testing method and its accuracy relies on technician proficiency.
As for the do-it-yourself methods, there are generally two kinds, both of which are fairly reliable, albeit more labor intensive. I actually prefer these methods because the subject actually gets to see and feel the body’s reactions, thus increasing validity in your mind along with the your incentive to make the necessary behavioral changes. The two kinds are the Coca Pulse Test and the Elimination-Provocation Test.
Dr. Arthur Coca discovered that allergies cause fluctuations in the pulse rate for up to ninety minutes after consumption of the allergen. He developed the Coca Pulse Test, which is a strict protocol that requires keeping a written journal of pulse rates at several and specific times over a period of several days. The goal is to determine a low to high pulse “differential.” Needless to say, this approach is fairly tedious and not for the employed or those who are not homebound.
The more accessible method for the layman, and the one I use most frequently with my clients, is the elimination-provocation approach. This entails removing the suspected allergens, the most common of which are gluten (from wheat, barley, rye, and oats), pasteurized milk, soy and corn for three to four weeks at a time and then reintroducing them one at a time, recording any reactions upon reintroduction.
The biggest challenge with this approach is compliance. These allergens are so prevalent in our food supply that you must be extremely diligent in identifying and avoiding all sources or this method will be unreliable. In fact, these common food allergens appear—often as “hidden” ingredients—in approximately 80% of our processed foods. For example, cow’s milk is a common ingredient in many sauces, dressings, baked goods, and even in some prepackaged meats like tuna fish. The same is true for most of the other common allergens like wheat, soy, and corn, including corn syrups and fructose. It is best to consult with a nutritional consultant for a complete list of the foods that contain these hidden ingredients as well as a list of foods you may use in their place during the test period.
Only complete abstinence of the allergen will yield detectable provoked reactions upon reintroduction. The upside of this test is that it essentially becomes a pretty good detox diet because the best chance of ensuring a reliable test result is to temporarily avoid all processed foods.
As for the reintroduction phase, you have to know what reactions to look for. The most common ones are weight gain, bloating or swelling, nasal congestion, constipation, brain fog, and many others. Again, it is best to consult with a nutritional consultant for a complete list. Also, when you reintroduce each food, you must do it in the smallest dose initially and then gradually increase the size of the serving over the next 24 hours to determine your “threshold” amount that you can tolerate before a reaction is provoked. This must be done correctly or you risk undoing 3-4 weeks worth of committed effort.
Managing and Eliminating Food Allergies
So what do you do once you detect a food allergy or sensitivity? As mentioned above, once you’ve determined your threshold of tolerance for the food, you create a schedule of how much and frequently you can reincorporate the food back into your diet without provoking a relapse, if you will, of the symptoms you once experienced when the food played a more significant role in your diet. If the reaction you experienced from the offending food was particularly severe, you may have to avoid the food altogether for several months before retesting.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of eliminating a reactive food is that people often experience cravings for the foods to which they are allergic. When the food is totally eliminated, an intense desire for the food may follow. This is not unlike any other addiction, as with coffee or a drug. Dr. Rivera explains the cravings phenomenon this way: “When the chemical reactions precipitated by the allergic response are pleasurable, the absence of this allergic response results in unpleasant feelings, which can only be remedied by eating the food and creating the allergic reaction again.”
Another interesting theory compares food allergies to serum sickness. The body produces excessive antibodies to a food such that the individual is actually sick from their own antibodies. Only when the antigen is reintroduced and binds with the antibodies does the condition improve. Unfortunately, the food stimulates more antibodies and the cycle repeats. The cravings are part of your withdraw symptoms. You may also experience headaches, fatigue, and irritability. However, this period should not last more than three to four days.
Hopefully, this has given you a better understanding of food allergies and perhaps even something else to consider on your path to better health wellness. If you have any questions or comments, please submit them below in the comments section.