“Too much of a good thing isn’t good for you” may be a cliché, but, in many situations, it can be accurate advice.
Perform the same workout over and over again, like running? That’s a recipe for developing imbalances, injury, or forcing your body into a plateau. Do too many hard workouts in a row? Welcome to burnout city.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says there is “no relationship” to consuming a large quantity of a food and developing an allergy.
But what about eating too much of one thing? Can that repetitive behavior cause food allergies that trigger symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and other more problems with names that make people squirm?
Hang out in enough forums or read social media conversations, and you’ll undoubtedly hear someone claim: “I ate eggs every day and they made me fat.” Or: “I used to drink a whey protein shake after every workout, but now I have food allergies and can’t drink any protein.”
You glance at the frothy chocolate post-workout mix in your hand and think ominously, can I give myself food allergies?
Can You Eat Your Way to Food Allergies? (No, and here’s why)
Adult-onset food allergies are rare. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
When they do occur, it happens within a specific subset of the population, says allergist and clinical immunologist Dr. Matthew Bodish. “Most adult-onset food allergy comes on in our 30s, especially in women and those with underlying allergic diseases, like nasal allergies and asthma.”
Bowdish adds that, “While we hear occasionally of this in the clinic, I don’t see much evidence in the literature about eating a lot of one specific food causing adult-onset food allergy.”
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology goes a step further, stating there is “no relationship” to consuming a large quantity of a food and developing an allergy.
Unfortunately, allergists aren’t exactly sure why adults develop food allergies, but research is ongoing and nothing is pointing to your repetitive meal plan behavior. It’s a frustrating reality when you have stomach issues and don’t know why. Naturally, you try to find a cause-and-effect relationship in the absence of other evidence. You eat the same thing, your stomach now hurts, so it must be the food!
The reality is, scientists have some good suspects but need more time to figure out the answer. “It’s possible that a factor such as a change of environment, viral infection or alteration of the large population of gut bacteria called the microbiome may contribute,” Bowdish says.
Now, that’ not to say food allergies don’t exist. They do, and, if you suffer from them, you’re probably aware of the frustrating symptoms.
Those symptoms hit quickly, often within minutes. So if you were to truly have a food allergy, you would know about it almost right away. The reaction could be severe, even deadly. Which is why, if you truly suspect that you have a food allergy or experience anything like what Bowdish describes, you need to see an allergist for a true diagnosis.
But even if you discover that you have an allergy, it’s not because of you ate your way to a problem. What’s more important is understand why your stomach might be sensitive to certain foods, and what you should do about it.
Why Some Foods Really Do Cause Problems
Ok, so you’re not allergic. But eggs — which never seemed to cause problems — suddenly seem to send you straight to the nearest restroom. What gives?
It’s possible that you have a food intolerance or sensitivity (the terms are interchangeable). In fact, according to a 2015 review of studies published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, between 15-20 percent of the population suffers from some sort of food intolerance. Here’s where things get complicated.
The symptoms most often associated with a food intolerance are cramping, gas, bloating and diarrhea. But there’s a lot about intolerances that we still don’t know.
Some intolerances, like lactose intolerance, scientists clearly understand. But the debate continues on what exactly causes things like non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which was only recently recognized as a condition by the scientific community.
There’s an entire category of food intolerances called “idiosyncratic” intolerances, meaning we know they happen, but we don’t necessarily know why.
But even with idiosyncratic intolerances, excessive exposure to a single food over time isn’t the cause, according to Razvan Arsenescu, the chief of the Atlantic Digestive Health Institute in Morristown, New Jersey. He says there just isn’t good research that shows a correlation between eating something regularly and becoming more sensitive to it over time.
Instead, Arsenescu thinks there may be other factors to consider. For example, if you suddenly start eating a dozen eggs a day in an attempt to move to a ketogenic diet, your gut may be rebelling because of the much higher fat load that diet carries.
Or, returning to the protein powder example, it’s possible that it’s something else in the protein powder mix causing the problem–like lactose or xylitol, a fake sugar that many people struggle to break down.
Arsenescu adds, “If you have an infection or inflammation of the GI tract, then many food items will cause symptoms.” So the problem isn’t the food itself — it’s a breakdown in how you process or digest foods you eat, with certain foods more likely to trigger a reaction.
That’s where fixing the symptoms becomes tricky. If you have a food intolerance (note: not food allergies), then removing the food and keeping it out of your diet might do the trick (more on this in a moment). But, if you have a bigger picture issue — like gut inflammation — removing foods that aren’t necessarily the issue might not be enough.
If you feel better without certain foods –whether eggs, or whey, or grains –that’s a personal choice. Do what works for you. But don’t assume that will put an end to your discomfort. Other foods — one’s you love and feel you can’t live without — might also cause issues, and removing all foods isn’t a long-term solution.
The good news is that if you fix the problem (such as reducing inflammation), you should be able to go back to consuming foods that became a problem. So what feels like a frittata-induced flare up may end up being nothing once you get your gut health back on track. That said, beware that some intolerances—like lactose intolerance—are with you for life.
The Missing Piece: What About FODMAPs?
Having a food intolerance shouldn’t freak you out. There are plenty of options to help you feel great and eat most (if not all) the foods you love. And here’s why: the pharmacology of certain foods, meaning its chemical makeup, is most likely to blame for your troubles.
Take coffee, for example. Some people can drink gallons with no issue, while one cup will send others sprinting for the bathroom. Is it a built up tolerance for years of drinking coffee? Maybe a little, but more likely your body is not chemically matched to handle the combination of salicylates (a naturally occurring chemical that often functions as natural pest deterrent) and caffeine.
This might help you understand the buzz about FODMAPS, which have been increasing linked with food intolerances and sensitivities. FODMPAS stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, a naturally set of components in the foods you eat.
“The problem is that bacteria like to eat these things, and that can cause gas,” explains Danielle Flug Capalino, RD, and author of Healthy Gut, Flat Stomach. “In other cases, these foods tend to sit in the gut for a long time and water is drawn into the gut via osmosis and that causes diarrhea.”
Researchers studying irritable bowel syndrome have found that eliminating FODMAPS is a reliable way to soothe GI distress. Any gastroenterologist or registered dietitian familiar with the low-FODMAP diet should be able to walk you through the basic eliminations.
At first, the cuts may seem severe (onions, garlic, and many veggies and fruits are on the list), but Capalino explains that after a few weeks, you can reintroduce one food at a time. If you have a reaction, you’ll know which food you struggle to digest.
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be afraid to consume your favorite healthy foods on the regular. However, Capalino, as a dietician, is obligated to point out that having variation in your diet is important too since no single food can provide all the nutrients you need.
To get you started, here is a list of foods that you might want to consider removing if you have stomach discomfort.
- Oligosaccharides: barley, chicory, garlic, legumes, lentils, onion, wheat, rye
- Disaccharides: Dairy products containing lactose, such as ice cream, milk, or yogurt
- Monosaccharides: Apples, mango, pears, watermelon
- Polyols: Apricots, cauliflower, plums, and many artificial sweeteners (Maltitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol)
Split the foods up into groups of 3-5 foods, so that you don’t tackle too many foods at once (this is more likely to lead to failure). After 3 weeks of withdrawal. Add one food back in at a time for 3-4 days. See if you have a reaction. If not, that food isn’t the issue, and you can continue building your diet back with freedom and comfort.