If you’re overweight, you’ve probably been accused of laziness and lack of willpower—or at least blamed yourself for those extra pounds. The truth is that people who have difficulty controlling their eating habits may actually be allergic to the very foods they most crave.
“Food addictions, like all addictions, can be a difficult challenge to overcome,” explains “The Natural Nurse” Ellen Kamhi, PhD, RN, HNC. And much like alcoholics, food addicts may have trouble recognizing that they’re reacting badly to certain foods.
“An estimated 60 to 80 percent of people are sensitive to one or more foods,” says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS. “Unlike true allergies, sensitivities often cause delayed, rather than immediate reactions” to an offending food. “Food sensitivities are also one of the most common causes of weight gain through fluid retention and overeating brought on by cravings.”
The body’s immune system responds to the reactive food by trying to flood it away, holding on to this extra water as long as molecules of this food remain in your tissues. Blood vessels expand and contract, setting off inflammation and swelling. “To compound the weight gain from waterlogged tissues,” Dr. Gittleman adds, “food sensitivities also trigger weight gain from adipose [fat] tissue,” leading to either greater cravings for reactive foods or metabolic disruptions. Not surprisingly, these disruptions make it easier to gain weight.
While 10 to 20 percent of adults suspect they have a food allergy, they’re more likely to suffer addictive cravings for foods they’re sensitive to. “Food sensitivities are difficult to discern for several reasons,” says Dr. Gittleman. “First of all, you may be sensitive to a wide variety of foods.” Delayed reactions from food sensitivities usually mean that symptoms don’t manifest right away. It can take up to two days before you notice that rash or abdominal discomfort.
Approximately 11 million Americans (6 percent of whom are children under three years of age) have genuine food allergies. Much more immediate in onset, these allergies can range from nausea and vomiting to asthma or hives—and in extreme, life-threatening cases, anaphylaxis (sudden swelling of the mouth and throat and difficulty breathing).
Negative reactions to foods are on the rise in developed countries, leading researchers to suspect food processing as a culprit. “Food allergies are also caused by a repetitive and monotonous diet, generally limited to 30 foods or less,” adds Dr. Kamhi.
Whichever kind of reaction you experience—a genuine food allergy or hard-to-identify sensitivity—the same foods are typically to blame: beef and pork, chocolate, corn, cow’s milk and related dairy products, eggs, food additives (MSG, nitrates, and sulfites), nuts (especially peanuts), shellfish, soy, sugar, tomatoes (and other nightshade plants), wheat and other gluten-containing grains, and yeast.
Even though U.S. food manufacturers have begun labeling major allergens, it’s wise to read ingredient lists carefully. For example, corn is used in high-fructose corn syrup, baking powder, hominy grits, margarine, cough drops, chewing gum, mayonnaise and salad dressings, breaded frozen fish, crackers, candy bars, even cranberry juice and other fruit drinks.
An elimination diet is often the best way to determine which foods are problematic for you. While this diet requires time and dedication, it’s worth the effort. According to Dr. Kamhi, here’s what you need to do:
Eliminate possible allergenic foods (what you eat most often, crave, or have noticed causing reactions) for 10 to 14 days.
Carefully observe any changes in symptoms.
Bring back eliminated foods, one by one, noting any return of symptoms (these foods are the ones to avoid).
Drink at least six to eight glasses of pure water every day, and eat brightly colored fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, and gluten-free foods (amaranth, buckwheat, flax, millet, quinoa, rice, seeds, sorghum, and wild rice). Even if you don’t have a food sensitivity or allergy, “you’ll automatically be eating fewer corrosive carbohydrates,” Dr. Gittleman adds, which can jumpstart weight loss.
“A combination of quercetin and bromelain is one of the most effective supplements for combating a food allergy,” finds Dr. Kamhi. Taken together, they strengthen the membranes of the body’s cells, lowering the risk of damage from an allergen. “This, in turn, lessens the allergic response and reduces the symptoms.”
Curcumin, an extract from the spice turmeric can help decrease symptoms. Cayenne, also known as red pepper, can help with digestive function. Also take omega-3-rich fish oil or flaxseed oil daily, advises Dr. Gittleman. These anti-inflammatory fatty acids help modulate allergic symptoms and support overall health.
Because food sensitivities and allergies disturb digestion, consider enzyme supplements: protease if protein gives you trouble, lipase to help digest fats, amylase for carbs, lactase for dairy. Aloe vera, the amino acid glutamine, chlorophyll, and vitamin E also support digestion, as do marshmallow root and slippery elm. By adding healthy flora to the digestive system, probiotics help lessen allergic reactions.