“I usually eat pretty well. I exercise a lot. So why do I look and feel so pudgy?” If you’ve ever pondered this mystery while pinching an inch or peering at a puffy-faced reflection in the mirror, you might be delighted to discover that a lot of your so-called “fat” may actually be something else entirely. Both it and some of your real fat could be the result of food-based allergic reactions — reactions your doctor may have never diagnosed but that you can quite simply identify and eliminate on your own.
First, you need to know a little about false fat.
Gauging Your Reaction
False fat is a term I use to describe the characteristic allergy-like pattern of bloating, swelling and fluid retention that many people experience when they ingest foods that “don’t agree with them.” Eating foods that interfere with our body’s chemistry can cause tissue swelling, abdominal bloating and facial puffiness that look for all the world like real fat. In fact, it’s not unusual for a person to look 10 or 15 pounds heavier as the result of false-fat reactions.
In my experience, the foods that people react to most often are also the most common components of the modern diet. I call them the Sensitive Seven: dairy products, wheat, corn (including corn syrup sweetener), sugar, soy, eggs and peanuts. Many people assume they aren’t “allergic” to these (or any) foods because they don’t experience the immediate hives, throat closing or severe gastrointestinal distress that we’ve come to associate with such allergies. However, low-grade and hard-to-spot reactions (like swelling and metabolic disturbances) are actually much more common types of reactions.
The other complicating factor is that some food reactions cause delayed symptoms, meaning that you don’t feel reactions for several hours or even more than a day after you eat the food. This makes such sensitivities extremely difficult to identify, particularly if your sensitivity is to a food (or foods) that you eat on a daily or near-daily basis. If you are constantly consuming wheat or dairy, for example, and constantly having a low-grade reaction, you may not recognize your body’s distress signals as “food sensitivities” per se. Rather, you simply assume you have some totally unrelated chronic problem, like a skin condition, ear aches, fatigue, joint pain or acid reflux.
Virtually any food can cause false-fat reactions — even otherwise “healthy” foods like citrus fruits or beans. Typically, an individual will develop sensitivities to the foods he or she eats most often. Because the Sensitive Seven are all common ingredients and the basis for many commercial and processed foods, most of us are overexposed to them. And if we eat such foods regularly, and especially if we eat them on a daily basis, we may experience a near-constant state of reaction — including inflammation, bloating and water retention.
Unfortunately, all this congestion and inflammation can also lead to a wide variety of other health complaints, including hay fever, cold and flu symptoms, rashes, headaches, insomnia, digestive trouble, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis and premenstrual syndrome. Worse still, food reactions can also interfere with nutrient absorption and damage your metabolism, causing undesired weight gain (or loss), nutritional deficiencies, hormonal and blood sugar disorders, cravings, low energy, depression and other mood alterations.
Just like real fat, false-fat symptoms can have a big impact not just on your appearance but on your overall health and well-being — including your ability to shed excess weight. That’s because false-fat reactions seriously interfere with your body’s normal digestive, assimilative and metabolic processes. They can cause irresistible cravings. They can also overtax your immune system, causing you to feel and become ill much more easily, and to be less energetic and active as a result.
Here’s how it works: When healthy people eat wholesome, nonreactive food, hormones and nerve pathways in their stomachs and guts send signals to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls hunger. When the hypothalamus gets the message
that the stomach is full and that the body has a new supply of blood sugar, it releases various brain chemicals that evoke satisfaction and contentment. The body automatically shuts off hunger and begins efficiently converting this food into energy.
When you eat reactive foods, this whole wonderfully orchestrated symphony of satisfaction breaks down. The reactive foods enter your system but are never properly digested in the stomach and intestine. Instead, they wind up entering the bloodstream as bigger particles (macromolecules) that your body doesn’t recognize and can’t properly assimilate. This can cause fermentation, indigestion and gas, but it can also trigger a release of antibodies and chemicals (including adrenaline and histamine) that set off an inflammatory “allergic” response. As fluids rush into afflicted cells and are held in your tissues, swelling and abdominal bloating occur.
And it gets worse. As this rescue mechanism takes place, your body thinks it’s under attack from a foreign invader and goes into distress. In response, it pumps out its own natural opiates called endorphins. When the opiates hit your system, you feel physically and mentally fulfilled — for a while. But after anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, the endorphin high wears off and your energy goes into a nose dive. Then, you are naturally inclined to do what you think your body wants you to do: Eat more of the food that produced the original high.
This endorphin fluctuation can make you feel virtually addicted to the foods that you crave. As you crash from your opiate high, other chemical reactions occur in your body that strongly reinforce your powerful desire to keep eating your false-fat food — as much of it as you can and as quickly as possible. You are now caught in a vicious cycle of constantly and strongly craving the very food you’re most reactive to.
Of course, not every craving is the result of food sensitivities, but in my experience with patients, many strong and chronic cravings turn out to be. The mood shifts associated with food reactions also predispose some people toward emotional and stress-related eating, thus compounding the problem.
Happily, you can easily avoid starting this false-fat reaction — if you know what foods to avoid.
Process of Elimination
One of the best ways to identify food reactions is called an elimination diet. You eliminate all likely allergens from your diet for a week or more, thus allowing your body to clear its system. As your inflammation subsides, retained fluids are flushed away, bloating diminishes and many other symptoms lessen or disappear. Once your system is clear, you reintroduce each potential allergen, one at a time, to see how your body reacts.
Working with a trained health professional (I recommend a naturopathic physician or a medical doctor who specializes in integrative medicine), you can also use one or more lab blood tests — such as an Enzyme Linked Immuno-Sorbent Assay (ELISA) or Antigen Leukocyte Cellular Antibody Test (ALCAT) — in order to identify your sensitivities to certain foods.
In my book The False Fat Diet, I provide detailed instructions for several false-fat programs. I also explain the advantages of various lab-testing techniques and provide dietary suggestions to help you maximize your loss of both false and real fat while improving your health. But you can also begin experimenting on your own: Just remove the foods you eat most often (including the Sensitive Seven) and see how your body responds.
Once you’ve given your body a chance to get clear, begin “challenging” it by ingesting a specific food and then monitoring your reactions over a 24-hour period. Usually, if your body doesn’t like a particular food, it will tell you (see chart at right).
Once you become more aware of your diet and your body’s reactions, you can identify which foods to eliminate or significantly cut back on. You can also count on making steady improvements in your health and appearance.
During the first week they eliminate their false-fat foods, it is not uncommon for people to lose between 5 and 10 pounds, and to look as though they’ve lost even more. As toxins and inflammation subside, most people also start feeling much better overall. Best of all, as their metabolism recovers and their system normalizes, the real fat they’ve accumulated starts coming off, too. Over time, as the body heals, many food sensitivities will subside.
If you seem to be addicted to any foods — that is, you crave them and eat them every day or at every meal, you will probably need to completely remove those foods from your diet for several weeks or months in order to permanently reduce your sensitivity.
Understanding your body’s reactions to false-fat foods is a huge motivator for eliminating them. Still, particularly at first, this sort of elimination diet can be a little challenging, primarily because it requires you to break your habitual eating patterns — and, quite possibly, to eat a wider variety of foods than usual. Once you are over that hump, though, it becomes quite easy (and very rewarding) to maintain.
Be aware that avoiding staple ingredients like wheat, dairy and corn syrup may require you to limit restaurant and packaged foods and to prepare most of your meals yourself. You’ll find that planning meals and making food ahead of time creates better eating habits and limits munching and spontaneous treats (in The False Fat Diet, I offer meal plans and recipes). You’ll help yourself out further by drinking plenty of water and getting regular exercise. Exercise will stimulate your metabolism and boost
your energy level. It will also help flush excess fluids, burn calories and suppress your appetite, allowing you to experience even faster results.
Finally, if it turns out that you are sensitive to one of your all-time favorite foods, don’t despair. A trip to your local health food store will turn up all sorts of wheat-free, dairy-free and other reactive-free alternatives that can help blunt your feelings of deprivation. By eating a wider variety of foods, you may very well discover many new and healthier favorites.
The key is to find foods that you enjoy and that you are not reactive to. It may take a little extra focus and creativity to adjust your eating, but when the pounds and inches start coming off, and you feel more energetic and look better than you have in ages, you’ll be glad you made the effort.
Elson M. Haas, MD, is medical director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, Calif., and a leading practitioner of integrative medicine. He is also the author of seven books, including Staying Healthy With Nutrition and The Detox Diet. Dr. Haas is a regular contributor to EL.