Migraine Triggers: Food Triggers & Elimination Diets

While it is uncommon for migraineurs to find that true food allergies are triggers for their attacks, food intolerances as triggers are incredibly common. One way to find out whether a particular food or drink is a trigger for you is to do an elimination diet.

An elimination diet for migraine disease involves avoiding food and drinks that commonly trigger migraine attacks for a certain period of time, then slowly returning them one by one to your diet to see if there is any change in the frequency or intensity of your attacks.

It also makes sense to avoid food and drinks that aren’t common triggers, but that you suspect may be triggers for you. Migraine is a very individualized disease, and we all have a variety of different triggers to contend with.

Some of the most common food and drink triggers include:

MSG (monosodium glutamate)
– chocolate
– aged or hard cheeses, such as Parmesan, Gorgonzola or Feta (also, processed cheese products)
– smoked and/or cured meats
– foods containing additives, such as hot dogs, pepperoni, deli-style meats, bacon and similar products
– bouillon
– caffeine
– red wine
– alcohol

Some people also have trouble with items like tomatoes, artificial sweeteners, freshly baked yeast goods (breads, doughnuts, etc.), cultured dairy products, citrus fruits and dried fruits.

MSG is a food additive and flavor enhancer found in processed, packaged foods, Asian food and meat tenderizers. MSG is one of the trickiest migraine triggers to avoid because it can crop up under a variety of different names on food labels. As many as 40 different food ingredients contain glutamic acid, which is what causes migraineurs problems. These are some of the names used for it on labels:

– monosodium glutamate
– glutamic acid
– monopotassium glutamate
– calcium glutamate
– magnesium glutamate
– gelatin
– yeast extract
– hydrolyzed protein
– soy protein

These ingredients or labeling terms often cause people who are intolerant of MSG problems:

– “flavors” or “flavoring”
– maltodextrin
– citric acid
– malt extract
– “fermented”
– “flavor added”
– “seasonings”
– soy sauce
– corn starch
– dextrose
– “enriched” or “vitamin enriched”
– modified food starch

The bottom line is that you’ve got to take this list to the grocery store with you and read, read, read those labels. Often more natural foods contain less of these additives and are good bets for people whose migraines are triggered by them.

When you’re looking at such a long list of foods you’ll need to remove from your diet for at least a while, planning meals and snacks can be incredibly overwhelming. These resources are helpful:

Migraine-Free Cooking

More Migraine-Free Cooking

Healing Chef Elodie: Heal Your Migraines

Migraine Cooking for Beginner Cooks

Don’t forget to tweak all of these recipes to address your particular triggers!

Which, if any, food intolerances trigger your migraine attacks? How do you avoid them? How do you handle it when you eat out or at a friend or family member’s house? Have you ever done an elimination diet?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
Hidden Sources of MSG | FAQ About Food Triggers and Migraines | Migraine Elimination Diet

Comments

View Comments (27)
  • Carol Lacey
    7 years ago

    I did an elimination diet 30 years ago. I “outgrew” all the common migraine meds. After a 3 week headache found Topomax & Depokote. My triggers are red wine, peanut butter and chocolate. Now all 3 of my daughters have migraines. My youngest, just in hospital for 4 days. We will be doing a diary for her. Depokote IV helped her and she is now on B-2 & Magnesium. Appreciate some of the suggestions here. She does skip meals. We are going to watch now.

  • Wendy Mullins
    7 years ago

    Onion is my biggest trigger, if I ingest it I am down for days, or in the hospital.

  • Lindsay Meyers
    7 years ago

    Caramel coloring is my #1 trigger, but it’s a delayed almost 48 hours later reaction

  • Alison Rolfe
    7 years ago

    Has anyone got any advice on how long to eliminate foods for? Should I cut out one suspected trigger at a time or all of them at once and reintroduce suspects gradually?

  • Carol Lacey
    7 years ago

    Unfortunately you eliminate them all then add back one a week.

  • Teri Robert
    7 years ago

    It’s best to eliminate all of them at once, then reintroduce them one at a time. Perhaps one food per week.

  • Jackie Blackmore
    7 years ago

    calcium propionate is a migraine trigger and is in bread and cakes. Avoid like the plague.

  • Bill Grabbe
    7 years ago

    “more natural foods contain less of these additives ” – Don’t presume that Whole Foods, etc. is your best choice. Just about every packaged food these stores sell contains soy. However, these stores may be your best bet for raisins and other dried fruits.

  • Teri Robert
    7 years ago

    Raisins and dried fruits are common triggers in and of themselves.

  • Robin Miles Thompson Yarbrough
    7 years ago

    I’ve recently discovered that red dye #40 is a major trigger for me – and like MSG is in a lot of foods. Now I’m rethinking my previous trigger list – an elimination diet is exactly what is called for. Thanks for the info.

  • Erica Olson Sommers
    7 years ago

    After 30 years of chronic, dibilatating migraines, I am close to being totally headache free. It seemed like it would be impossible to follow the Buchholz 1-2-3 treatment plan, but I did it! 1. Give up all quick fixes (for me that was A LOT of imitrex, zomig, vicodin, and norco). The first few migraines without drugs were devastating, but they starting being farther apart, less intense, and shorter duration 2. Trigger elimination diet – yes, I miss my beloved caffiene, chocolate, cheese, citrus, and the many other wonderful foods on the list, but not more than I DON’T miss migraines. I never did step 3, using a preventative medication, because I found that I didn’t need to (although not sleeping well is still a trigger). After 5 months of the above treatment, I am now introducing small amounts of forbidden foods, and find that I can tolerate a bit of grated Romano here, or a spoonful of homemade lemon vinagrette there. It’s amazing to feel like I am in control of my life, not my headaches being in control of me (I’m pretty sure that’s a quote from Dr. Buchholz!)

  • Erica Olson Sommers
    7 years ago

    I didn’t realize the above comment would post on my Facebook page, otherwise I would’ve started by saying…YAY!!!!

  • Lynne Heller Smith
    7 years ago

    I did an elimination diet 18 years ago, and think it might be time to do it again. Food triggers for me include MSG, artificial sweeteners, sulfites, alcohol, cured meats, citrus, corn (the next day), more than 2 cups of caffiene a day, any item with milk in it, oats and nuts. One would think I’d be thin for all the foods I must avoid, ha ha. As for dealing with this, I’ve learned to ask questions, and have gotten over being shy about sending dishes back to the kitchen.

  • Sara Stevens
    7 years ago

    My husband has migraines and the only food type that I have found that triggers his is spicy food of any kind wether it be chicken wings or this pasta at applebees with the name penne in it.

  • Janene Zielinski
    7 years ago

    fresh cilantro gives me an immediate migraine. So weird. I’ve never heard of anyone else with this one! I guess I’m strange. Gluten is my big enemy though. I get huge carb/sugar cravings during my prodrome.

  • Cheryl Ann Livingston
    7 years ago

    Cilantro does me in also… you are not the only one!

  • Diana-Lee author
    7 years ago

    Thanks for the tip about watching out for salt, Christina!

  • Melanie Grossi
    7 years ago

    I did the migraine elimination diet about 15 years ago and that worked well. Now that we are eating mostly whole foods that I prepare myself I’ve found food triggered migraines are even lower.

  • Lisa Juliette Peron
    7 years ago

    Every time I see the list of all the possible food triggers I get completely overwhelmed. I had to do tons of elimination dieting in high school to try and find triggers and ended up only finding out that I can’t have a lot of sugar or skip meals. I wonder if there are more food triggers for me, but that bad experience, inconveniencing others (and myself), and the never-ending list just overwhelm me too much.

  • Bill Grabbe
    7 years ago

    Too much emphasis on what you CAN’T eat is very frustrating. I started having more success when I came up with a list of what my wife CAN eat. For cooking at home, you might take a look at my blog. http://migrainecooking.blogspot.com/

  • Cristina Montesinos
    7 years ago

    I highly suggest trying it. It’s worked miracles for me. I just eliminated from my diet everything that could possibly trigger migraines because my headaches were becoming too frequent again. (About 3 weeks ago) I eliminated even more than what’s on this list. I used Dr Buchholz’s suggestions. I feel like I’ve cured myself. I feel great and hardly have a headache anymore. Even the hormone headache I was used to having once a month are gone. The biggest triggers for me are chocolate, wine, cheese, caffeine, nitrates/ites, sulfites/ates, fake sugars, salty food, soy sauce, msg, citrus. It’s worth any preparation inconvenience to feel as great as I do now. I won’t go back. Plus the whole family is eating healthier now since we are making everything from scratch.

  • Marie Girlando
    7 years ago

    oranges/juice and sesame seeds are two foods that will give me migraines. I’m thinking there might be more. Good luck!

  • Cyndy Clement Gay
    7 years ago

    I decided to try the Atkins diet in June to drop a few pounds quickly. Not only have I dropped weight, I am amazed at how many fewer headaches I have had. I also have no more acid reflux. I have noticed when I eat bread products I get a headache AND reflux again. I have not seen my doctor since realizing these side effects but I am anxious to see what he has to say!

  • Cris Roll
    7 years ago

    I had severe reflux disease for years and couldn’t lie flat at night. I began a low carb diet in the fall of 2000 and within a couple of weeks, I was lying flat again. I would never go back to a high carb diet. It’s simply not worth it. I use very little prepared foods. I cook mostly from scratch.

  • Lyle Henry
    7 years ago

    Read labels and avoid anything that has the ingredient L-tyrosine as it is also a trigger for migraines. Read more about this and learn why certain foods and ingredients become triggers at http://tuliv.com/migraine-triggers.aspx.

  • Phyllis Mclellan
    7 years ago

    thank you for the info-I will check this out.

  • Christina the Bookworm
    7 years ago

    Food triggers have really altered my life. I am unable to eat out at most restaurants because of the food additives. It has really impacted my social life too since when other people cook, I can’t tell them to “hold the pickles, I’m gluten free, sensitive to seasoning” etc. When I do eat out I am able to eat unseasoned chicken on a salad and ask for oil and lemon wedges on the side. One other trigger I would suggest others to look out for – salt. Foods like chips are out for me, however I have found that organic varieties are lower in salt and by watching quantity I am fine.

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