Avoiding Food Triggers

It makes perfect sense to say that if a certain food acts as a migraine trigger, that food should be avoided. Unfortunately, simply steering clear of triggers is harder than it sounds. They can be difficult to identify and even more difficult to isolate and remove from your diet.

But by following a careful process of food logging and systematic dietary isolation, and allowing your body appropriate time to adjust and react to the changes, your dietary detective work will pay off with a reduced frequency of migraine attacks.

Isolating Problem Foods

The first rule of dietary isolation is to take it slowly. Eliminating ten foods at once may prove successful, but it will be nearly impossible to determine which foods were the triggers and which were benign. Remove one potential trigger food from your diet at a time.

If migraines abate, you may have gotten lucky on the first try. In most cases, however, patience is needed for this long and sometimes tedious process. For example, if you decide to try substituting the artificial sweetener you usually use to sweeten coffee and foods with regular sugar, leave the rest of your diet unchanged. If a migraine presents itself on the second day of this attempt, you may assume that the sweetener is not a major trigger.

However, if this particular migraine is less intense than is typical for you, keep making the sugar substitution until you are convinced that either the artificial sweetener is a trigger for you, or that it has no impact on the frequency and duration of your migraines. At that point, it is safe to proceed with removing a second triggering food from your diet. This process of elimination will eventually identify food triggers.


Going cold turkey on dietary caffeine can actually cause headache. If you think caffeine may be a migraine trigger, gradually reduce the amount of it in your diet rather that cutting it out completely all at once. Reducing coffee intake by a cup each week is a good way to start.

Remember that some potential triggers can be hidden ingredients in some of the other foods you regularly consume. Artificial sweeteners are a good example; many “sugar-free” and low-calorie foods use them in abundance. Careful label reading is important to ensure that you exclude the trigger from your diet completely during this process of elimination and testing.

Exclude Triggering Foods

One of the best ways to avoid eating or drinking something at home is to keep it out of the house. Once it becomes clear what your trigger foods are, stop purchasing them. If anyone else in the house usually does the grocery shopping, leave them a written reminder stating which foods are forbidden.

What if one of your major trigger foods ends up being a child's or spouse's favorite? Look for substitutes that are suitable for everyone in the household. Carob, for example, can frequently be substituted for chocolate in many recipes. If the mozzarella on pizza triggers your migraines, try substituting a rice or soy cheese.

Another strategy is to designate a kitchen cabinet or pantry shelf as a place to store foods that are off-limits to the migraineur, but that the rest of the family can still continue to enjoy. The same can go for a designated drawer or shelf in the refrigerator. This keeps all of your potential problem foods in one area that you can easily avoid, leaving the rest of your kitchen as a migraine-free zone.

Committing to Change

Dealing with food triggers will be challenging to migraineurs. However, it is an important step in migraine management and should be treated as medically necessary. Having a good attitude about upcoming dietary changes will help tremendously in aiding both the patient and family members to adapt quickly.

Be open-minded to food substitutes — the up side is that you may make some pleasant new discoveries that you would otherwise never have experienced. And remember the greater good: eliminating migraine triggers gives you a very good chance of decreasing the incidence of migraine attacks and leading to a better quality of life overall.

One of the most difficult things for migraine sufferers, when it comes to dealing with food triggers, is accepting the fact that dietary changes are usually permanent. Once a food trigger has been identified and removed from the diet, it needs to be removed from the diet from that point forward. Occasionally, some people are able to slowly add back trigger foods, but more often, sensitivities to certain foods do not go away with time.

Once a food has been eliminated for some number of years, the migraineur may not even want to add it back. If you have not eaten bananas in ten years, for example, you will have probably lost the taste for them and do not crave them any longer. If you do decide to add trigger foods back into your diet, add them one at a time, in small measures, and be prepared for a possible resurgence in headache frequency or intensity.

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