The 10 Most Common Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities can lead to unwanted symptoms, such as bloating and nausea. Food sensitivities are different from food allergies because they aren't associated with an immunological allergic reaction. Food allergies can be diagnosed with blood tests that measure IgE antibodies, which are produced due to the body's immune response to certain foods. Identifying food sensitivity requires careful observation of cause and effect.

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8 Surprising Sources of Common Food Allergens

Identify Food Sensitivities With an Elimination Diet 

The best way to identify a food sensitivity is through the use of an elimination diet, followed by a "challenge" phase in which you re-introduce the food and assess for symptoms. It is important to make sure that you accurately identify your particular sensitivities to reduce your risk of eating an overly restrictive diet.

Throughout the process, you will want to keep a food diary, as other factors such as weather, mood, exercise, and menstrual cycles, can all affect your gastrointestinal (GI) and other symptoms.

Keep in mind that while food sensitivities can be difficult to identify, they are rarely life-threatening.

Deciding What Foods to Eliminate

If you don't know which foods you are sensitive to, usually it's helpful to start your elimination diet by avoiding foods that commonly cause the most trouble for people in general. You can choose to eliminate one food at a time, or to eliminate them all at once.

1

Dairy Products

Studio Shot of dairy products

Jamie Grill / Getty Images

For those who are sensitive, dairy products can cause GI and/or respiratory symptoms, as well as skin reactions.

There are two reasons why this happens:

  1. Many people are lactose intolerant. This means that they lack enough lactase, a digestive enzyme necessary to digest the lactoses sugar that's present in dairy products.
  2. Dairy products contain a protein called casein. Casein may be hard to digest and can result in inflammation within the digestive system.

If you choose to eliminate dairy products, then you would exclude milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. This list includes any product derived from the milk of cows, goats, and sheep.

2

Eggs

Basket of eggs on white table with black background

Dave Bradley Photography / Getty Images

Eggs have the notorious distinction of being on the top list of allergy foods for children. However, there are also proteins within eggs that cause sensitivity for some people.

Egg whites have more of these proteins, but if you're going to include eggs on your elimination diet, it's best to avoid them completely. Once you've eliminated eggs from your diet for a period of time, you can challenge the egg yolks and egg whites separately to assess for any reactivity.

If you are sensitive to eggs, you can avoid symptoms by following the same dietary recommendations as someone who is allergic to eggs.

3

Peanuts

peanuts closeup

Maximilian Stock Ltd. / Getty Images

Peanuts are on the list of top food allergens. Even if you don't have an allergic reaction to peanuts, there is a possibility that you could be sensitive to them. 

Peanuts are not true nuts, and they are actually classified as legumes. Signs of peanut sensitivity include respiratory or digestive symptoms.

4

Shellfish

Oysters presented on dishware on a table, overhead view

Jeff Wasserman / Stocksy United

Shellfish reactivity can occur due to proteins found in this group of marine creatures.

Examples of shellfish include:

  • Clams
  • Crabs
  • Lobster
  • Oysters
  • Scallops
  • Shrimp
5

Gluten

Variety of breads on wooden surface

rzdeb / E+ / Getty Images

Gluten, a protein found in barley, wheat, and rye, must be totally avoided by individuals who have celiac disease. However, you can have a gluten sensitivity even if you don't have celiac disease.

There is some evidence that gluten sensitivity might be the cause of IBS in some individuals. Anecdotally, gluten is suspected to be a factor in a wide variety of health and behavioral problems.

6

Corn

Ear of corn artistically presented

Max Oppenheim / Getty Images

In research studies, corn has shown up as one of the top foods to contribute to IBS symptoms. The tricky thing about eliminating corn is that it's a component of many processed foods in the form of high fructose corn syrup. You'll need to read labels carefully.

7

Soy

Soy Products on wooden surface
Mache Seibel, MD

Soy is on the list of top allergens for children. Anecdotally, many adults attribute IBS symptoms to eating soy-based products. Like corn, soy and its derivatives are now found in many food products. To avoid soy, you must carefully read food labels.

8

Beef, Pork, and Lamb

Meat on shelf at supermarket

Katrina Wittkamp / Getty Images

Some people report a sensitivity to animal meats. This may be linked to the way the livestock is reared.

Conventionally raised livestock are given corn and soy as primary feed sources, as opposed to grazing on grasses in a pasture. In addition, these animals are also given hormones and antibiotics, all of which have the potential to affect the meat that you're eating.

If you think that meat is a problem for you, you could try looking for pasture-raised animals and performing a food challenge based on the way the animals were raised and fed.

9

Coffee

overhead shot of Cup of coffee

Jonathan Kantor / Getty Images

Many people report that drinking coffee stimulates their bowels. This might be a good thing for some, but for others, certain proteins and chemicals (salicylates) found in coffee may contribute to unwanted digestive symptoms. 

If you're going to add coffee to the list of foods to avoid on your elimination diet, you will want to wean yourself off slowly to prevent caffeine withdrawal symptoms. 

10

High FODMAP Foods

Apples, cherries, and nectarines arranged on wooden surface

Diana Miller Cultura / Getty Images

FODMAPs are a type of carbohydrates that are fermentable, osmotic, and poorly absorbed. They can cause digestive symptoms for some people. Research studies have found that following a low-FODMAP diet reduces IBS symptoms in approximately 75% of IBS patients.

If you have IBS, an alternative to following a full elimination diet is to just start with a FODMAPs elimination diet and then conduct a subsequent food challenge.

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Article Sources
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  2. Mathew P, Pfleghaar JL. Egg Allergy.In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing

  3. Patel R, Koterba AP. Peanut Allergy. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

  4. Alonso LL, Warrington SJ. Shellfish Allergy. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing

  5. Barbaro MR, Cremon C, Stanghellini V, Barbara G. Recent advances in understanding non-celiac gluten sensitivity. F1000Res. 2018;7. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.15849.1

  6. Wilson JM, Platts-mills TAE. Meat allergy and allergens. Mol Immunol. 2018;100:107-112. doi:10.1016/j.molimm.2018.03.018

  7. Barrett JS, Gibson PR. Fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAPs) and nonallergic food intolerance: FODMAPs or food chemicals?. Therap Adv Gastroenterol. 2012;5(4):261-8. doi:10.1177/1756283X11436241

Additional Reading
  • Heizer W, Southern S, & McGovern S. The Role of Diet in Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults: A Narrative ReviewThe Journal of the American Dietetic Association. July 2009;109(7):1204-14. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.04.012.

  • Mullin GE, Swift KM. The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health. New York, NY: Rodale; 2011.

  • Shepherd S, Gibson P. The Complete Low-FODMAP Diet. New York, NY: The Experiment; 2013.