Why It’s So Hard to Identify Food Triggers
Last updated: May 2022
If you’ve tried to track migraine triggers, you’ve probably gotten frustrated by how difficult it can be. Here are some of the reasons it’s tough to identify specific food triggers.
Triggers add up
Triggers tend to be cumulative. This is the case with all triggers, not just food. A food may be fine one day, but not on a day when the weather is stormy or you didn’t get enough sleep or your hormones are fluctuating. Think of it as a bucket. You can fill up a bucket without it overflowing unless you try to add more than it can hold. Different people’s buckets can hold different amounts. You can add trigger after trigger as long as your bucket doesn’t overflow, but it can be hard to know when that overflow point is.
Food cravings or migraine trigger?
Food cravings are often misattributed as triggers. Say you usually have a migraine attack within a few hours of eating chocolate. It could be that the chocolate is a trigger, or it could be that you already had a migraine coming on and were craving chocolate because of it.
Other types of misattribution are common, as well. You may think a food is a trigger because a migraine comes on after eating it, but the two events may be completely unrelated.
Individual food triggers are hard to identify
We rarely eat foods in isolation. That pumpkin ravioli you had for dinner wasn’t just pumpkin, of course, but also contained wheat, eggs, aged cheese, and spices, not to mention the ingredients in the sauce. Any one of those components could be a trigger, or maybe none of them are.
No one's triggers are the same
Not everyone has the same triggers. You may not have any trouble with the foods on the typical list, but react to something seemingly benign. Cauliflower and butternut squash don’t appear on any migraine food lists but are both major triggers for me.
Quantity of food makes a difference
Quantity matters. Maybe you’re OK with eating an ounce of chocolate each day, but two ounces trigger a migraine attack. A slice of tomato on a sandwich might be fine, but tomato soup sets off an attack. The same goes with food chemicals. Maybe you’re OK with tomato and chocolate if you eat them a few days apart, but eating them on the same day will lead to an attack.
How elimination diets help
The difficulty of identifying triggers is why elimination diets are recommended. By simplifying your diet and taking out the most common possible triggers, it becomes easier to track what’s problematic for you. Once you clean the slate (as much as possible), it’s easier to tell if a certain food you test will trigger an attack or not.
Which are you most sensitive to?