To Eat or Not to Eat? How to Identify Your Migraine Trigger Foods

You may not need to give up some migraine trigger foods entirely.

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If you do a quick internet search, migraine trigger foods can seem like a long and intimidating list. However, it’s important to recognize that everyone’s list of trigger foods is a little bit different. For example, your friend with migraines might need to avoid or limit chocolate, but you might not have any issues with the candy.

Additionally, the specific foods are only one component of a migraine-friendly diet. What you eat is sometimes less important than when and how you eat.

Eating Behaviors and Migraine

With all the talk about migraine trigger foods, it’s easy to ignore your eating behaviors. Before blaming your migraines on individual foods, make sure you’re eating and hydrating regularly. That’s because both low blood sugar and dehydration are major migraine triggers.

“Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar is a very common migraine trigger. For that reason, it’s very important to eat regular meals if you’re prone to migraines,” says Sylvia Mohen, MD, neurologist in New York City. “Eat at regular intervals throughout the day so that you avoid periods where your blood sugar plummets.”

If you have a hard time scheduling your meals during the day, make a habit of carrying migraine-friendly snacks. This can keep your blood sugar from falling if you need to delay your lunch for a couple hours.

Common Trigger Foods to Know

Remember: While the following foods can commonly trigger migraines in people, not every food on this list may be a trigger for *you*.

Here are the most common foods that may trigger migraines:

  • Alcohol (e.g., wine, beer, and spirits)
  • Artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame
  • Chocolate
  • Processed meats (e.g., cold cuts, sausage, bacon, hot dogs)
  • Fried foods
  • Aged cheeses
  • Certain additives in processed foods (e.g., MSG, nitrates)

How to Identify Your Own Culprits

“People will have all sorts of individual triggers that you don’t see that commonly—the ‘low-frequency triggers,’” says Dr. Mohen. “It can be hard to identify them, but keeping a detailed headache diary sometimes can allow you to go back and look for a pattern that may not be apparent.”

You may need a more intentional approach to identify a food trigger, such as an elimination diet. This is when you choose one food or ingredient at a time to avoid completely, and monitor for symptoms. Then, you might reintroduce the food to see if symptoms resume.

“If your headaches become significantly less frequent, great. If they don’t, then maybe that wasn’t the right thing to pick. You can add it back and take something else out and see if that maybe makes the difference,” says Dr. Mohen. Note that it might help to work with a registered dietitian while doing an elimination diet.

Another important consideration: Some foods can trigger a headache right away, while the effects of other foods can be delayed up to 24 hours.

Managing a Migraine-Friendly Diet

If you identify a trigger food, you’ll need to figure out how to manage that trigger. You may not need to eliminate it from your diet entirely. Sometimes, you can enjoy a trigger food in small amounts without any problems. For example, you may be able to tolerate one glass of wine, but not two or three.

Plus, some migraine medications can actually improve your tolerance of certain foods. “Sometimes with preventative treatments, people can go back to enjoying foods that they know to be triggers but that they derive pleasure from otherwise, like fried foods,” says Dr. Mohen. Learn more about treatments for migraines here.

“If you’re having trouble identifying your trigger foods, it may be time to talk to your neurologist. If you have a very complicated set of nutritional triggers, it may be time to establish a relationship with a nutritionist as well,” says Dr. Mohen.

Find out what to expect at your first session with a dietitian here.