12 Sneaky Ways Food Makes You Sick

These common food triggers might be the culprits behind your unexplained symptoms.

November 8, 2017
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Food allergies and sensitivities can be tricky to navigate. The symptoms can range from headaches to gas, and they sometimes don't even show up until a day or two after you've eaten.

Woodson Merrell, MD, knows that to the right person (or wrong, depending on whether you are that person), certain foods can trigger some nasty symptoms. "Anyone who is experiencing symptoms that they would describe as frequent, chronic, or daily should seriously consider whether the foods they eat frequently or daily may be contributing to the problem."

In his book The Detox Prescription, he explains how toxins, including those from the foods we eat every day, can cause conditions that range from moodiness to heart disease. Here is his list of foods that can commonly trigger adverse reactions:

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Trigger #1: Wheat

Wheat, and more specifically, gluten, is the hot-button topic these days. Merrell attributes this sudden outburst of gluten toxicity to a change in how farmers grow wheat. "The modern wheat we eat today is in fact a highly hybridized foodstuff that contains dozens of carbohydrate and protein molecules that are new to the human body."

"Whole grain foods can be a healthy choice if you're among those who can tolerate them," Merrell says. "If you are sensitive to them, however, they can wreck your health." If you have celiac disease, the lining of your small intestine becomes damaged with exposure to gluten. Symptoms include upset stomach, chronic diarrhea, gassiness, bloating, fatigue, bone or joint pain, irritability, or headaches. It's also possible to show up negative to celiac disease yet still have a sensitivity to gluten.

Gluten is especially tricky because it can be found almost everywhere. Aside from general wheat products, watch out for bouillon cubes, licorice, canned soup, nondairy creamer, salad dressing, and yogurt premixed with fruit. These can all contain hidden traces of gluten. 

More: The Hidden Sources of Gluten in Your Home

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Trigger #2: Yeast

Another problem with bread can be the yeast. Yeast allergies can be to both solid baked (breads) and liquid (beers) foods, and can even include naturally occurring yeast such as the kind found in sourdough bread. When checking ingredients labels, look for "autolyzed" or "hydrolyzed" yeasts. A great way to avoid yeast but still eat bread is to buy products leavened with baking soda instead of yeast. Other sneaky culprits containing yeast are vinegar, soy sauce, pickles, cheese, and mushrooms. Symptoms from yeast exposure can be fairly general and include fatigue, headache, muscle aches, irritable bowel, and rashes.

More: 11 Foods to Avoid for Anti-Inflammatory Eating

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Trigger #3: Dairy

Estimates are that as much as 90 percent of people of Asian decent, 75 percent of African Americans, 60 percent of Eastern Europeans, and 40 percent of Northern Europeans have some kind of dairy sensitivity. Dairy sensitivity is caused by either lactose (dairy sugar) or casein (protein). Symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain and cramping, bloating, and flatulence. While it's generally fairly simple to identify dairy products (they're in the dairy section of the supermarket), it's important to also check ingredients lists on meat products for casein.

More: Paleo, Ketogenic, Gluten-Free: What They Mean & the Right One for You

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Trigger #4: Eggs

Egg allergies are common among children and can be easy to spot because symptoms occur within a few minutes or hours after eating eggs or products containing them. Like any allergy, egg allergies occur when the body mistakenly identifies the egg protein as harmful. While both the yolk and white of the egg contain protein, egg white allergies are more common. Symptoms include rash, hives, nasal inflammation, and digestive problems. It's possible, though rare, for eggs to cause anaphylaxis, so it's important to be wary of labels that claim a product to be "egg free." Some buzzwords for eggs include albumin, globulin, livetin, lysozyme, and words that start with "ovo" or "ova." 

More: How to Make Any Cake Allergy-Friendly

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Trigger #5: Soy

There are the foods that are obviously soy—edamame, soy milk, and tofu—and then there are those that have sneaky soy. Soy can be found in everything from baked goods to butter substitutes, and the ingredients don't always come right out and say "SOY!" Soy hides behind names like hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), textured vegetable protein (TVP), lecithin, monodiglyceride, monosodium glutamate (MSG), vegetable oil, and vitamin E. Generally, symptoms are mild and include hives or itching in the mouth

More: 9 Hidden Sources of MSG in Your Food

 
 
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Trigger #6: Tree Nuts and Peanuts

Macadamias, pecans, walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, Brazil nuts, and peanuts—you name it, you can be allergic to it. Allergies to tree nuts and peanuts, which is actually a legume, can range from minor irritation to life threatening anaphylaxis. The real danger with nut and peanut allergies is for children who have had minor reactions in the past. There is still a risk of a more serious reaction in the future. Fortunately, companies have become very aware about putting warnings on nut- and peanut-containing food products.

More: 70 Powerfoods to Supercharge Your Health

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Trigger #7: Shellfish

A shellfish allergy can be tricky because it's only one kind of fish for some people while others can't eat anything that came out of the sea, and the range of symptoms is just as wide, from mild irritation to life-threatening swelling of the lips or throat. Generally, shellfish allergies can be split into two types: crustaceans and mollusks. Crustaceans include crabs, lobster, and shrimp (things that have segmented armor). Mollusks include clams, oysters, scallops, snails, squid, and octopus. The biggest risk for people with shellfish allergies is cross-contamination at restaurants.

More: The 5 Step Anti-Allergy Plan

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Trigger #8: Corn

Corn is a tough one to uncover because it's virtually everywhere. Besides the cob form, there's also cornmeal, corn syrup, and cornstarch. "You will have to read labels like crazy to eliminate this one," says Merrell, "but it can be life changing if you discover a problem and are able to address it."

More: 10 Crazy Things Pesticides Are Doing to Your Body

 
 
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Trigger #9: Nightshade Vegetables

This category of vegetables includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tomatillos, and both sweet and hot peppers. They produce a naturally occurring class of toxic alkaloids, including solanine and chaonine. Symptoms to watch out for include joint pain and digestive issues. Merrell notes, "Interestingly, tobacco is also a nightshade and contains the alkaloid nicotine."

More: 5 Foods Making Your Pain Feel Worse

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Trigger #10: Histamines & Tyramines

Simply put, allergies to histamines or tyramines are allergies to old food, but not the stuff rotting in the back of your fridge. Both of these compounds are naturally produced in food during the aging process, and can be found in foods that are fermented, aged, or simply stale. Usual suspects for histamines and tyramines include cured meats, cheese, wine, and nuts. These foods are common triggers for migraine headaches. 

More: 6 Lifestyle Changes for Migraine Prevention

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Trigger #11: Sulfites

In order to enhance or preserve packaged or preserved foods, companies often rely on sulfites. Commonly found in dried fruits, nuts, trail mix, baked goods, wine, beer, and condiments, they can generally be avoided if you steer clear of products that list "sulf-" in the ingredients. Sulfites can trigger headaches, respiratory issues, and skin dysfunctions.

More: 50 Foods You Should Never Eat

 
 
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Trigger #12: Salicylates

Plants were making their own natural pesticide in the form of salicylates long before humans came up with chemical versions. Since these compounds help fruits and veggies keep pests away, salicylates are generally concentrated in skins, so a good way to avoid them is simply to peel your food. However, it's important to note that they can also be found in certain perfumes and medications, including aspirin. Salicylates commonly trigger respiratory and skin dysfunctions.

Want to find out if one of these food groups is at the root of your health issues? An elimination diet is the best way to go.

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