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Published January 16, 2013, 11:35 PM

Positively Beautiful: Making sense of food allergies

We are becoming more and more aware of the importance of our diet, and that food is information as well as fuel. All calories are not created equal. Celebrity nutritionist and host of TLC’s “Freaky Eaters,” JJ Virgin, says “Our bodies are more like chemistry labs than bank accounts when it comes to our diets.”

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices.com, INFORUM

We are becoming more and more aware of the importance of our diet, and that food is information as well as fuel. All calories are not created equal.

Celebrity nutritionist and host of TLC’s “Freaky Eaters,” JJ Virgin, says “Our bodies are more like chemistry labs than bank accounts when it comes to our diets.”

What happens when we eat something that doesn’t agree with us?

True food allergies are rare but can be dangerous, even deadly. Peanuts and shellfish are the most common culprits for anaphylaxis, the condition that can cause potentially lethal swelling of your skin and airways. It frequently requires immediate medical treatment such as

antihistamines and epinephrine as well as a trip to the ER.

But what about other reactions we have to the foods we eat?

Some people are naturally lactose intolerant, making milk consumption uncomfortable since they lack the enzyme to break down lactose sugar in dairy. Celiac disease is caused by gluten consumption. The lining of the intestines can be destroyed by an autoimmune inflammation stimulated by the protein gluten, which is found in many cereal grains, pastas and baked goods. People can also be intolerant to the common food additive MSG.

There is also a more subtle condition called food sensitivities. Milk, eggs, wheat, soy, corn and peanuts are common causes of sensitivities. This too is an immune response but more difficult to assess because it often causes a delayed reaction and chronic low-grade inflammation.

Symptoms of food sensitivities include:

• Problems with digestion, bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea.

• Congestion, sneezing, coughing and sinus problems.

• Sleep issues such as fatigue, insomnia or restlessness.

• Dull hair and problem skin, including acne breakouts and dark circles.

• Headaches, brain fog, irritability and difficulty with focus.

• Weight gain.

• Muscle and joint pains.

• Premature aging.

Lastly, some foods can cause reactions. For example, a sugary soda or a doughnut may give you the jitters within a few minutes of drinking or eating. This sensation is related to a blood sugar spike, which in turn signals insulin secretion. Frequent consumption can lead to insulin resistance and possibly diabetes.

The end result of food allergies is inflammation. This is obvious and often visible with acute allergic reactions, but food sensitivities can cause silent inflammation. This can trigger a cortisol stress response and impede leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full and satisfied. It can also decrease feel-good hormone serotonin.

Yikes. This reads like a complicated recipe for feeling terrible, gaining weight and developing chronic health problems. What to do?

Consider temporarily eliminating foods that are common offenders: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, corn, peanuts, sugar and artificial sweeteners. This can be done one at a time or all at once.

When I work with patients, I will often have them first go off dairy for one week, then challenge their bodies by drinking a glass or two of milk, and follow their symptoms for the next 48-72 hours. This is called and elimination-challenge test. It can be repeated with the other food items. Foods that have caused acute allergies such as hives and airway swelling are strictly avoided.

JJ Virgin suggests a

21-day cleansing period in which you eliminate all seven of the culprits listed above, then add items back one at a time for a week to assess which ones are problematic for you personally.

While I have been talking about food sensitivities with my patients for years regarding respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, Virgin is the first author I’ve read to link these issues with weight problems. Her new book, “The Virgin Diet,” does a great job of explaining the science behind it and giving good options for what you can eat while figuring out how your body, the chemistry lab, responds to foods.

Reading food labels is crucial, but it’s probably even easier to avoid most foods that have labels and stick with whole, fresh foods. Most of us would do doing pretty well with a nice piece of walleye baked with a dab of coconut oil, lightly steamed broccoli and a well-washed apple.

It takes a little shopping, planning and experimenting. Maybe we can retrain our taste buds and, in the end, feel better, clearer and lighter.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.

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