Illustration: Clayton Junior

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Making Friends with Your Diet

Not feeling well? Here's why Jancee Dunn says you may want to head to the kitchen first.

Before you take another pill to fall asleep, fight allergies or quell tummy troubles, ask yourself, Was it something I ate? "Most people don't consider their symptoms," says Kelly Dorfman, a Maryland-based nutritionist. "But you'd be amazed at how often ailments are caused by what you eat—or don't eat." Dorfman, a kind of nutritional detective, teams up with doctors to solve medical problems through diet and supplements when all other options have been exhausted. These three cases from her files prove that we really are what we eat.

Case 1
Problem: Rashy Skin
Rebecca, 42

Rebecca was plagued by rough, dry bumps on the backs of her arms, which made her look like a plucked chicken. A dermatologist diagnosed her ailment as the common condition keratosis pilaris and prescribed a series of creams and ointments, to no avail. Rebecca consulted Dorfman, who, after ruling out allergies, grilled Rebecca about her diet, sleep habits and medications. Upon further research, something clicked. Was Rebecca constipated, by chance? Did she find she was rarely thirsty? Yes and yes. Dorfman began to suspect that Rebecca had a deficiency of essential fatty acids (EFAs). "If you deprive humans of essential fatty acids such as omega-3s and omega-6s, their epidermis gets scaly," Dorfman explains. "If you're eating well, the fats are incorporated into the epidermis to make the skin smooth." Rebecca's new EFA-rich diet included one serving a day of leafy green vegetables drizzled with olive oil, another serving of walnuts or ground flaxseed and at least two servings of fish per week. Two months later, Rebecca's skin was bump-free.

Case 2
Problem: Persistent Lyme Disease
Tanya, 34

By the time Tanya saw Dorfman, she'd tried several antibiotics; none had worked. Were antibiotic-resistant bacteria to blame? Possibly. But Dorfman had a hunch there might be a nutritional culprit. Dorfman peppered Tanya with questions, including whether she happened to be taking prenatal vitamins, which have high levels of iron. Tanya, a new mom, said she was. "When bacteria are grown in a Petri dish and the right antibiotic is added, the bacteria die," says Dorfman. "But if iron is also added, the bacteria may survive because most bacteria love iron. They need it to grow and thrive. Take away the iron, the bacteria can't easily multiply and the body has a better chance of fighting illness." Voilà: Tanya recovered.

Case 3
Problem: Severe Migraines
Lauren, 45

For 20 years, Lauren suffered regular skull-busting headaches. She tried countless medications, meditation, regular exercise—nothing helped. So Dorfman had er keep a food diary for a month and scrutinized it for headache triggers. Then she had Lauren eliminate foods with preservatives, such as tannins, which are found in chocolate; sulfites, added to many wines; and nitrites, ingredients in processed meat. Weeks passed, and the headaches persisted. Dorfman then consulted an old list of headache-provoking foods that mentioned common items like aged cheese and sauerkraut, as well as apples. Lauren didn't eat aged cheese or sauerkraut, but she did love apples. "She was eating at least one a day," says Dorfman. "I immediately had her give them up—and that was the end of two decades of headaches."