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Food allergies and overeating–what’s the connection?

We all have our favorite foods. For me, freshly baked bread and scones top the list.  And for some of us, once we start eating these foods, we can’t stop. It’s as if they’re calling to us. Before we know it, we’ve eaten the whole carton of ice cream, or polished off the entire bag of cookies.  Even though we may overeat other foods, with these particular foods we feel compulsive and addicted.  We’ve learned  it’s best, if we can, to keep these foods out of the house. 

If you tend to feel compulsive with certain foods, there is a good chance that you may be allergic to them.  When you think of allergic, you most likely think of unpleasant symptoms such as hives or rashes.  But did you know that not all allergic reactions are unpleasant?  You may in fact feel better after eating allergenic food.  This reaction is called “allergic addiction.”  In an attempt to soothe the irritation caused by allergic foods your body releases powerful soothing brain chemicals.  And over time you can become quite addicted to these pleasurable chemicals. 

So, what exactly is a food allergy?  It’s an unusual sensitivity to a particular food.  Whenever an allergen is encountered, your immune system is activated and a flood of body substances, like histamine, will be released.  These substances will expand blood vessels, causing inflammation, overproduction of mucous and discomfort.  You may experience this inflammation as a runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, nausea or even clogged airways. 

Clearly, if you felt this bad everytime you ate something, you probably wouldn’t eat that food anymore.  But there are other unpleasant symptoms you may not associate with food allergies.  These include:  compulsive food cravings, water retention, irritability, foggy headedness, fatigue, sinus problems, headaches, bloating stomachaches, anxiety, depression and arthritis.  And the list goes on. 

When we continue to ingest food allergens on a regular basis we eventually tear down our immune system and disrupt our metabolism, which can result in weight gain, inflammation throughout the body and chronic disease.  While many of these symptoms could be caused by conditions other than allergies, it would be wise to explore the possibility of a food allergy with your healthcare provider or by home testing. 

The most common causes of food allergy are:  wheat, cane sugar, dairy products, eggs, fish and shellfish, tree nuts, alcohol, berries, citrus fruits, peanuts, tomatoes, soy, yeast, food additives and pesticides.  Food allergies can be a lot more challenging to identify than allergies to airborne substances like pollen.  There is often a time delay in the onset of symptoms, from hours to days, making it difficult to trace the cause.  And symptoms may come on slowly after many years of daily ingestion of particular foods to which you are sensitive. 

Most physicians admit that conventional skins tests are unreliable for food allergies.  There is a family of blood tests known as ALCAT which measure allergic response to various panels of allergens, including foods.  Saliva testing can identify allergies to all gluten-containing grains and cow’s milk protein.  In my clinical practice, I encourage clients to home test first by monitoring symptoms and eliminating or rotating suspected foods.  This is a highly effective way to identify food allergies. 

By eliminating foods, rotating foods or eating troublesome foods only at widely spaced intervals, you can keep most food allergens from reaching the critical point and triggering symptoms.  It’s best to keep a log of foods you eat daily and any symptoms you notice immediately or within 72 hours of ingesting a food. 

On an Elimination diet, you avoid the primary suspect, such as wheat or soy, in all its forms for one to four weeks (go as long as you can) to see how you feel.  If it feels difficult to let go of this food from your diet, this is a good indication that you may have allergy and addiction.  Once you have eliminated the food for a period of time, you eat it again, in generous portions at several meals in one day and note your symptoms.  If any troublesome symptoms return, it’s a good indication of an allergen. 

It’s best to work with one food at a time when you follow an Elimination Diet.  You may have withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, cravings or headaches within the first few days off the food, but within four to five days you should be feeling better. 

If you feel way too attached to foods to even consider eliminating them, the next best step is to try a Rotation Diet.  The most common Rotation Diet is the Four Day Rotary Diet, where you eat the offending food only once every four days, trying to eat as little of it as possible on the fourth day.  This allows the level of antibodies in your system to subside and will help reduce cravings and some of the unpleasant symptoms you experience. 

When you eat a food you are allergic to several times a week, your body is never free of the food and you can never feel completely well or stop the addiction.   If you feel extremely resistant to eliminating or rotating certain foods, this may be an indication of emotional issues fueling your overeating.  Perhaps you’re not ready yet to give up a good (or the only) source of comfort and excitement in your life, even though it’s causing health problems, including weight gain.  It may be time to consider working with a psychotherapist who specializes in overcoming overeating. She can gently assist you in working through the deeper seated issues that are blocking you from taking the best care of yourself. When you’re feeling better about your life, it will be easier to release foods that no longer serve you.

Posted by Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT.  If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this blog, go to https: //www.overeatingrecovery.com.

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