Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Food Sensitivity Discovery and Self-Diagnosing

By Adam Thompson

[Editor's note: An important theme related to evolutionary thinking about diet is the identification of foods that are "new" or "novel" from the standpoint of human evolution, and the accompanying thesis that consumption of these foods cause health problems ranging from mild discomforts to outright disease. A paleo diet can be viewed as an "elimination diet" wich aims to minimize exposure to foods, for example gluten, that commonly cause health problems even if not causing immediately noticeable symptoms. From this point of view, Adam's extreme sensitivity to many foods may be considered unusual in its intensity, but not at all unusual in terms of prevalence if we consider the ailments that currently plague millions of Americans. Go to a pharmacy store and consider the abundance of medicaments meant to mitigate precisely the kind of symptoms that Adam identifies as signs of food sensitivities. Meanwhile reports keep coming in about people who have rid themselves of more or less debilitating conditions of the same kind by adopting a gluten- and dairy free paleo diet, and thus live a more energized and fulfilling life on a daily basis. Draw your own conclusions! /Christian ]


I'm going to describe how I do discovery, diagnosis, and knowledge-seeking for my own health. I am not a medical practitioner or professional, and this advice is only based on my personal experience and knowledge. I am speaking only of my own experiences. You should consult medical professionals about your health.This is related to my personal health post.

How to start

I'm 26 now. I've had my allergies and intolerances my whole life, but didn't realize I had them until 8 months ago. The reason I didn't discover them sooner is actually philosophical. Prior to becoming an atheist and then an Objectivist three years ago, I was raised as a Christian. I was taught, and partially accepted, that suffering is normal; it's to be endured, or even celebrated. Christianity also seeks to disconnect the mind from the body, and as a result, I regarded my body as an unimportant attachment to my mind. I was actually suffering very severely under my intolerances, but I simply accepted that as normal and ignored it. There were plenty of signs of my problems, and I consider my parents and doctors at fault for not caring about the signs, but in the end it was my responsibility to take care of myself. I wasn't taking care of myself.

Objectivism is a selfish, happiness-seeking philosophy. After becoming an Objectivist, my focus switched from others to myself. About a year ago, I realized that my health was really uncomfortable. I chose to fix it, selfishly, in order to feel good and be happy.


Any form of physical discomfort is a sign of some health problem. If I'm feeling discomfort, it has a cause and it's probably fixable.

For intolerances, the specific forms of discomfort are: Gas (I think that ANY GAS, EVER, is a sign of intolerance), bloating, growling stomach all the time, pain deep in the navel, loose stool. Loose stool is anything that requires a lot of wiping. When I was a kid, I got into trouble for using too much toilet paper. In fact, I wasn't just an inherently wasteful person, I had health problems!

For allergies, the discomforts are part of an immune response and can include: Acne, itchy skin, hives, nervousness followed by exhaustion, sensitive gums, sensitive lips, irritated/loose-feeling teeth, itchy throat, lots of mucus, runny/stuffed nose, watery eyes, sore muscles. In extreme cases: Nausea, sickness, asthma, lightheadedness. In severe cases, these symptoms can turn into deadly anaphylaxis. Get an Epi-pen if you have these symptoms.

Allergic symptoms will appear while eating the food and a few hours afterward (acne and exhaustion can last 1-2 days). Intolerance will mess up digestion immediately or within 24 hours. Gluten and casein intolerance are probably the worst; with more than a trace amount of gluten I have inner navel pain within 5 minutes, and destroyed digestion and exhaustion for 5 days.


Each time I feel a symptom I don't know about, the first thing I do is Google it. Type in whatever information you have that's relevant. Use double quotes around terms (so it doesn't treat the words in the term as separate words). 'I have itchy skin' returns results about allergies. Now you know it may be an allergy. Did you just eat onion? '"itchy skin" onions' returns results specifically about onion allergies. Sometimes, when reading the results, you'll realize a better thing to search for, or a more proper term for something. 'onion allergy' will get you even better info about onion allergy. You'll discover that onions are an 'allium'. 'allium allergy' will now give you quite specialized results. Do a lot of skimming, and read anything that's good. Take anecdotes on forums with a huge grain of salt, but they can still be very useful for making correlations. If you're serious about a subject, start looking into the actual scientific studies.

Any time someone mentions something you want to know about, Google it. Curious about all this iodine supplementation? "iodine supplementation", "supplementing iodine". If you find a particularly good resource, remember it. Whenever I Google about various vitamins, I end up reading the same awesome website. Now I check that website first, before Googling about vitamins. This is how you come to know the best resources on the web.

Be careful that you don't treat correlation as causation. Anecdotes, real medical studies, many "facts", and even your own body's symptoms and reactions may indicate correlations that are not actually causal. Correlations can be useful to know about, but they are not the same as causations. I find I must beware of this constantly.

Testing foods

The clearest way to know whether you can have something in your diet is to test it. Be careful, because a severe allergy can kill you. Shellfish is my worst allergy, and if I ate a whole lobster, I bet I'd end up in the hospital. Eggs just make my skin itchy and are no problem to test. Note that allergic reactions can change in nature over time; in 10 years, maybe eggs will be dangerous to me. Don't test severe allergies; you already know you have them.

Go to an allergist first; you can get a skin prick test for many allergens at once. These tests are not definitive, but they're a good starting point and guide to your potential allergies. You can also get immune response blood tests.

Once you begin self-testing, you'll want to test foods one at a time, and not have to re-test. The best way to accomplish this is:

  1. Go on a diet that certainly contains none of your allergens. The best diet for this is a form of paleo: An all-meat diet. You'll want a diet that's literally just fat and meat. I mean, nothing else. No salt (unless you start to feel dehydrated). No drinks. Nothing else. Veggies and fruits are optional; they're the first foods you'll try, but before trying them you'll be on a meat-only diet. You could avoid this type of diet, but it's a healthy diet, only temporary, and it'll make finding your intolerances very quick and easy. (It's missing certain micro-nutrients, which is why you'll want to add fruits and veggies.) For this diet, you'll need to do your own cooking. The first 2 weeks will be an exhausting metabolism switch to fats and proteins instead of carbs. After that, you can begin testing and adding foods.
  2. Test one pure food at a time, waiting long enough between foods that the symptoms from one are gone before testing another. Note that intolerances and allergies have independent symptoms and timing; therefore, you can test both at once if you're in a hurry. Try one allergen per day. Try one intolerance every 4 or 7 days. If you have an allergic reaction the day you try the allergen, you're allergic to that. If your digestion falls apart when trying the intolerance, you're intolerant of it; wait until your digestion is back to normal (4-7 days) then try another. Test pure foods; testing "Bob's spaghetti sauce" is really time-inefficient, because it contains 6 ingredients, and if you're allergic to ANY of them, you'll have to test them all separately anyway and you just wasted a day.
  3. Re-test important foods that will require major life changes, like gluten, eggs, etc. Anything that's super-important to you should be re-tested at least once. For me, this was coffee, chocolate, gluten, rice, etc.

Using all the information you find about symptoms, start reading about how to treat the root problem. Design a treatment for yourself.

If you have a good doctor and/or allergiest, you can go to them with the information you've learned and they'll either agree with your treatment, or offer good reasons why they have a superior treatment. If your doctor doesn't seem to know about your problem, he should be willing to learn. If he rejects facts that you've carefully verified yourself, either take control of the relationship (not a great solution) or change doctors.

In many cases, 'treatment' is simple, such as "stop eating onions". Note that many processed foods contain other foods. By 'processed foods' I mean absolutely anything that's not raw and pure. Sea salt contains shellfish proteins. Almost all spaghetti sauce contains onion. The ingredient "natural flavors" can contain a huge number of different things. Gluten is almost always unlabeled. Frito-lay corn chips contain gluten because they're processed on the same lines. Most packaged unflavored bacon contains spices and sugar. Etc. The best way to discover this, before eating it, is to Google it. The second best way is to call the company who produces the food, but that's a huge pain, and they don't always know (or they're just wrong). 'does soy sauce contain gluten' reveals that some types do, some don't. 'do van camps beans contain gluten' is also helpful.

Doing all this can be difficult, but if the comfort is worth it to you, you'll love the results.

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