You’d have to be living under a rock to not have at least heard the word gluten. A trip to any supermarket reveals labels touting freedom from gluten, dairy, corn, soy, nuts, and eggs. Gluten-free packaged food is a $1.5 billion a year market in America alone! So what’s all the fuss about, and why does it matter?

Eight years ago, I was eating a diet that consisted of lots of “healthy” foods, but felt really tired almost all the time. I went to a naturopathic doctor, and she tested me for food sensitivities that revealed that gluten, dairy, and soy were the culprits of my mystery fatigue, bloating, and 10 pounds that no amount of dieting or exercise had been able to shake.

Within a couple weeks of eliminating these foods, I was the Energizer Bunny incarnate, and within a couple months, I had lost 15 pounds with zero calorie counting or additional exercise. Since then, I have made it my mission in life to help people look to the refrigerator before their medicine cabinet when dealing with their health concerns.

Note: A food intolerance is distinct from a food allergy. A food allergy causes an instant and potentially life-threatening reaction. Less than 1% of the population suffers from true food allergies, while some studies reveal that as much as 95% of the population suffers from an intolerance to at least one food. An intolerance causes the immune system to react to a food as if it were protecting the body from a foreign invader. It’s tricky to link food intolerance to health problems, because the reaction is delayed and the effect is compounded over time. The symptoms are so broad that many holistic health advocates believe that hidden food intolerances are at play in nearly all health problems.

Here’s how to diagnose food intolerances and resources that will help you live healthy, delicious lives without the foods that may be undermining your health right now.

Step 1: Do I have a food intolerance?

Since food intolerances can manifest in so many ways, it’s safe to say that if you are dealing with any chronic illness or even minor health issue (headaches, fatigue, acne, etc), food intolerances could be to blame. The end of this post has a link to a free questionnaire.

Step 2: When in doubt, take these out.

Anytime someone comes to me with almost any concern, I suggest they eliminate gluten for two weeks and tell me how they feel. Most feel a tremendous improvement; for some, a miracle. If they don’t, I send them back to eliminate dairy. This approach alone is hardly scientific, but works for many people. Other common trigger foods are sugar, yeast, soy, eggs, nuts, and corn.

Step 3: Identify specific foods.

Most people won’t do step two for very long without “proof.” I get it. I love grilled cheese, ice cream, and cookies as much as the next person, and I would have been hard-pressed to make this shift in my diet without some concrete evidence. There are several ways to identify your specific food intolerances ranging in cost, time, and effectiveness. Here are a couple that work for most people:

Elimination diet:

You essentially start with a detoxification program, and then reintroduce potential culprit foods one at a time and track your body’s response. If a reintroduced food causes symptoms, then you’re intolerant to that food. This approach is free and can be very effective if done properly, but requires time, attention, and that you follow it exactly.

Food diary:

Record what and when you eat each day, and include any symptoms you experience, as well as the time the symptoms begin. You will likely see a pattern as to which foods are triggering your symptoms. Works really well in conjunction with an elimination diet.

Food intolerance blood testing:

There is no single test that can identify every food to which you have a negative reaction, but there are labs that provide accurate results. Note that this blood test is not the same as a skin prick test that you would receive from an MD, which may be effective at determining allergies but not intolerances.

Step 4: Eliminate problem foods.

It can be a big challenge to eliminate entire food groups, especially when those foods are wheat and dairy, which are central to most people’s diets. Luckily, the landscape for allergen-free foods is much friendlier and more delicious than it was a couple years ago. It also may not be necessary to go the rest of your life completely without these foods, but an extended period of healing is usually in order.

Once you get into the swing of your new diet, the amazing changes in the way you look and feel will certainly outweigh any annoyance, I promise.