Nutrition Overview

Many of the chronic health problems that plague people in the United States are related to poor dietary and lifestyle choices. Illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, and gastrointestinal problems often develop as a result of diet. Nutrition is the backbone of naturopathic medicine. By changing our diet and adopting a healthy lifestyle, we can often change or reverse the course of an illness and restore good health.

Food impacts every cell in our body: you are what you eat. Unfortunately, the importance of nutrition is often downplayed. Foods can have a positive and negative impact on our health. One way food can have a negative impact on the body is from food sensitivities (also known as food intolerances), which are often incorrectly referred to as food allergies.

Food Sensitivities vs. Food Allergies

A food allergy is an immune response to a certain food. People who have a true food allergy (common examples are peanuts and strawberries) are usually aware of it and avoid the food due to the immediate and strong immunologic reaction that occurs (e.g., swelling, hives). A food sensitivity is a physiological reaction (e.g., headache, diarrhea) to a food, without an immune system response.

People often refer to a condition as a food allergy, when it actually is a food sensitivity. Food allergies are generally easy to determine through allergy testing or history of immune response. Food sensitivities can be more difficult to determine because reactions can be delayed (up to 48 hours) and/or more subtle. Also, it can be difficult to determine which food is actually causing the symptom, or if the symptom is caused by food or another pathological condition. Food sensitivity symptoms are many and varied. They include headache, diarrhea, constipation, sinus congestion, sore throat, and joint pain.

Food sensitivities can be more complex than just a symptom. When a food that is not tolerated is eaten, the stomach and intestines can become inflamed. Because of the inflammation, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract can develop little openings that bits of undigested or partially digested food can pass through. This is referred to as "leaky gut syndrome." When these particles enter the bloodstream, the body's immune system recognizes them as foreign and attacks them. Thus, an immune response is initiated at this point, but it is still not identified as a true food allergy.

Common Food Sensitivities

  • wheat products (pasta, breads, processed foods)
  • glutenous grains (rye, barley, oats, spelt, kamut, seitan, hops)
  • dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, cream)
  • corn products (tortilla, chips, polenta, cornstarch, thickeners)
  • peanuts (peanut butter, peanut oil)
  • soy products (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy protein powder, soy oil)
  • red meat (usually more a problem with additives than with the protein itself)
  • caffeine (coffee, tea, colas)
  • chocolate
  • sugar substitutes (aspartame, saccharine)
  • food colorings, dyes
  • pesticides and chemical spoilage retardants
  • sulfites (canned vegetables, tuna, albacore, fruits, wines)

Vegetable protein, thickening agents, and stabilizers are either wheat, corn, or soy. It is much easier simply to avoid processed food than to determine all the additives in prepared foods.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 02 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 29 Jan 2015