Getting Started on a Low Histamine Diet

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Read tips and tricks for wrapping your head - and your kitchen - around a histamine intolerance: a diet that can be daunting at first but that for some is rewarded with wide-ranging health improvements.
So you’ve decided to try out a low histamine diet and see if it helps you.  We applaud you: this diet is a particularly daunting one, and it will take some time to see if it’s making a difference for you so this is going to take a certain amount of sticking to it!

Here you'll find our tips for maintaining a low histamine diet – we hope you will add your own tips and tricks in the comments, and check out our Histamine Intolerance FAQs and the histamine intolerance discussion threads in our group here on freedible.  You can also find more resources in our Survival Guide to New Diets, including some tips for meal planning during your initial trial period and beyond.

Good luck – and don’t give up!

Wrapping your head around it: how big is your histamine bank today?

As with any food intolerance with an extensive list of restricted items, the first step is to teach yourself a new way to think about your daily meals.  Whereas before you might have thought about your nutrition in terms of the food pyramid you learned about in the 5th grade, now it’s going to get a whole lot more complicated.

Freedible founder Cheryl Viirand (who herself has a histamine intolerance) describes it to her 8 year old son (who has it as well):

I tell him that it’s like a bank that you get to fill with histamine each day – but you can’t overfill it or you’ll have more than your enzymes can handle and you’ll “feel yucky again.”  The tricky thing is that you’re not the only one making deposits in this bank: it’s already going to be pretty full on days when your seasonal allergies are in full bloom, or if you’re in the middle of a growth spurt.  So if you want to have some [high histamine] ketchup with dinner tonight then you should probably skip the bread with yeast in it at lunch.

It’s also useful to think of the bank as being smaller on days we’re having alcohol, or if we’re taking a DAO-inhibiting drug.  

This also sounds pretty complicated – and to be fair, it is! But as with most food intolerances, once you master your list and become aware of how particular foods affect you and where your threshold lies, it becomes more intuitive.

Age over beauty (or is it the other way around?)

One of the wonders of modern-day America is the leftovers: not quite fresh, but not store-bought either.

Alas, the longer that food sits in your fridge, the longer it is subject to little microbes working away to convert it into histamine and other things that might set your little cells off.  Now that doesn’t mean you have to throw everything away as soon as you finish off the first night’s meal! We try to abide by a few rules of thumb to keep us on track:
•    Put all leftovers away immediately, in air-tight containers to reduce spoilage – don’t leave them sitting on the counter while you clean up after the meal!
•    Cooking in batches is a great time-saving technique – just freeze any leftovers you don’t expect to eat right away.
•    Pick your leftovers comfort level – we generally try to toss any leftovers still in the fridge more than 24 hours later, though this may be too much for some (and too aggressive for others!).

You can also apply this general rule of thumb when you're selecting packaged goods to avoid opening unnecessarily large packages that you know you won't need to use right away.  For instance, instead of opening a large rice milk or chicken broth for the fridge that then degrades as it sits there, you can use single-serve packages that get used up immediately.

Get crunchy: buy fresh, buy preservatives-free and buy local.

Setting aside the hot cultural battles over fresh, locavore and preservative-free cooking, making sure your food is as fresh as possible is a good way to help keep down the amount of histamine in your foods.  Choosing between carrots from a neighboring state and ‘prettier’ ones from a neighboring continent?  Think how much histamine has been building up as it immigrated on a food truck to a grocery store near you – from thousands of miles away!  Grab the local one: your gut and a neighboring farmer will both be thankful.

Here’s a tip for those foods that you can’t buy fresh: rather than grabbing a canned, out of season vegetable or a pre-packaged good off the shelf, check out your freezer section.  We’ve been really heartened to find not just the staples (frozen peas, corn, etc) but often harder-to-get vegetables as well, like sliced okra or frozen chickpeas.  Recently we’ve even been able to buy plain, frozen artichoke hearts – a delicacy that is generally doubly off our list, being both marinated and in a jar.  Bring a kid along and make it into a safari – you never know what you’ll find!

Focus on what you can eat – not just what you can’t!

As with all food restrictions, a good attitude is 95% of the battle – and in this case, we find that 90% of that is focusing on what you can still eat – and how much better you feel when it works!  Sure, you’ll miss strawberries and pineapple – but think of all the other fruits you can still eat!

Eating out – no, really!

Over time, once you’ve mastered the art of focusing on what you can eat, maintaining the low histamine diet at home is not so bad.  Eating out can be another story!

As with all food restrictions, it’s important that you call the restaurant ahead of time and make sure that they’ll be able to accommodate you.  It also helps to provide a smooth communication with the chef if you bring along a printed list of what your restrictions are; we also like to type the restrictions right into our reservation when we reserve via OpenTable and other similar services.

Finally, some people may find once they get their histamine levels generally in check they are able to tolerate high histamine ‘treats’ now and then.  Everybody is different, and unfortunately every season or every day can be too depending on the various factors contributing to your histamine intolerance.  But with careful trial and experimentation in consultation with your doctor, you may find that there is a certain threshold of high histamine foods that your body can tolerate – and you may decide to save up that ‘allowance’ for your night out on the town.

That said, we still urge you to exercise moderation – maybe a little (vinegar-containing) mustard on the side, but skip the whole cheese fondue!  And we recommend that you be extra cautious about alcohol when eating out as well: anytime you eat something that didn’t come out of your own kitchen, you never know how old the food is, whether it was imported from South America or picked right next door – you get the picture.  So give your body a fighting chance, in this case in the form of a full head of DAO production!

Cooking tip: focus on the acids.

One of the things you’ll notice as you start trying to adjust old family favorites into low histamine versions is that an awful lot of recipes (and in particular crock pot recipes we know and love) require vinegar, which increases the histamine levels in your food by curing them.  This is more of an issue in some cultures than in others, and depending on the type of dish you may find that one of several different substitutions works best.

In our own cooking, we’ve found we can often supply the ‘bite’ that’s missing when we exclude vinegar from our foods with lemon juice or, more often, pomegranate juice!  There is something about the sideways-flatness in the flavor that mimics vinegar well and it works particularly well in crock pot ribs and even barbeque sauces – give it a try!

Getting a rise out of yeast-free baking.

Yeast, because it ferments the foods it’s in, is unfortunately a no-go on a low histamine diet.   Yet there are other ways to make your leaven baked goods, like baking powder or even seltzer water! Get creative – and then post the recipes you come up with in our Community Cookbook to help others on a similar path!

Find more tips in our histamine intolerance group - & share yours!

Really obnoxious diets like this one are more fun – or at least less overwhelming – with friends.  Join our histamine intolerance group today!
And please check back here – cooking and thriving on any restricted diet is an art, one that takes a long time to master!  As time goes on and we discover or become conscious of more of the tricks that pull us through the low histamine day-to-day, we’ll add them here or in our group.  And we hope you’ll join the conversation!