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Nutrition Articles  ›  Special Concerns

Common Foods that Can Trigger Migraines

How Your Diet Can Cause a Headache

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian
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The chart below features foods and beverages that are known to be possible triggers. You will want to experiment and see which of these foods and foods groups trigger your condition. Often people feel overwhelmed and anxious by such a long list, and begin to wonder if there's anything left to eat. Therefore a list of generally "safe foods" has also been provided.  This list is by no means comprehensive, but it can be a great starting point in your prevention and treatment plan as you work with your health-care provider.
 
Worth Noting:  The cooking and processing of a food can changes its chemical makeup. This is why you will find fermented and cultured foods on the trigger list, while a more natural or unprocessed state of that same food is on the safe list. "Freshly baked" breads and pastries that contain yeast can trigger a reaction, but yeast breads that are cooked and at least a day old are generally safe. While patterns are starting to materialize regarding soy based foods and their relationship to migraines, it is too soon to tell about the triggering impact of new foods found in the marketplace such as hemp milk, almond milk, rice milk and other dairy alternatives.
 
 
Food Category Safe Foods Foods That May Trigger Migraines
Protein
  • Fresh or frozen beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish and lamb
  • Eggs, unflavored tofu


 
  • Aged, canned, cured, smoked or processed meats
  • Meats prepared with meat tenderizer, soy sauce (often used in Asian cooking), brewer’s yeast 
  • Meats containing nitrates, nitrites or tyramine. (Examples include: bacon, hot dogs, corned beef, bologna, sausage, salami, pepperoni, pastrami, summer sausage, liverwurst, liver, chicken liver, smoked fish, pickled fish, herring, lox, canned or smoked, anchovies, sardines, caviar.)
  • Peanuts, nuts, seeds, and their "butters"
  • Certain beans (broad, fava, garbanzo, Italian, lima, navy, pinto, pole and string beans)
  • Soy burgers, miso soup/paste, tempeh 
 
 
Dairy
  • Cow's milk, American cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, cream cheese, processed cheese.
  • Soy milk

 
  • Cultured dairy products (yogurt, kefir), buttermilk, sour cream, chocolate milk
  • Aged cheeses:  blue, brick, gouda, Gruyere, mozzarella, Parmesan, provolone, Romano Roquefort, Cheddar, Swiss, Brie, Camembert
  • Soy cheese and yogurt
Fruits
  • Any fruit except those on the avoid list.
  • Figs, citrus fruits, raisins, papayas, red plums, raspberries, bananas
  • Overripe, moldy or spoiled fruit
Vegetables
  • Any vegetable except those on the avoid list.
  • Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi), raw garlic, snow peas, avocados, olives, onions, string beans, pickles, pea pods
  • Overripe, moldy or spoiled vegetables
Grains
  • ·Most breads, English muffins, melba toast, crackers, bagels
  • Hot and cold cereal
  • Rice, barley, millet, quinoa, bulgur, corn meal
  • Noodles and pasta.
  • Freshly baked yeast bread
  • Fresh yeast coffee cake, doughnuts, sourdough bread
  • Breads and grains containing cheese, chocolate, nuts and/or seeds
Beverages
  • Fruit juice, club soda, non-cola soda
  • Decaffeinated coffee and tea
  • Soy milk and rice milk
  • Chocolate and cocoa beverages
  • Alcoholic beverages (especially red wine, beer, and sherry)
  • Beverages containing aspartame and/or caffeine (energy drinks, diet drinks, diet colas, coffee, tea)
Desserts and sweets
  • Sugar, jelly, jam, honey, hard candy
  • Desserts made without chocolate or nuts
  • Desserts made with chocolate or nuts or cultured dairy (including ice cream, frozen yogurt, pudding, cookies, cakes or pies)
  • Mincemeat pie
  • Freshly baked yeast-containing pastries
Other foods and ingredients
  • Lemon juice, vinegar
  • Butter and margarine, cooking oils, whipped cream
  • Homemade and commercial salad dressings with no ingredients on the avoid list
  • Use salt only in moderation
  • Aspartame (Nutra-sweet, Equal)
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG), yeast/yeast extract, meat tenderizer, seasoned salt, soy sauce 
  • Pizza, cheese sauces, macaroni and cheese, lasagna, frozen dinners
  • Fermented, pickled and marinated foods
  • Canned soup, bouillon or broth (liquid, dry or cubes), soup base with autolytic yeast or MSG
  • Sauces and gravies containing meat extracts
 
Continued ›
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • I've had migraines forever. I take medication every day to help quell them. However, if I eat certain trigger foods I will have a breakthrough migraine. Sometimes even the smell of some foods can trigger migraines for me. I wish more people understood how easily migraines could be triggered and could be more compassionate about understanding the effects of migraines. - 5/7/2014 9:47:59 AM
  • IAMFAT5498
    What I have not seen is anyone having headaches every day of their lives. That is what I have had unless I am on some kind of meds. I have tried everything else. My Mother said even as a small child I had headaches. I am now 71 and still have to be on medication and after being on one have to change to - 3/24/2014 2:44:02 PM
  • I disagree with the safe foods under grains. Gluten is a HUGE migraine trigger, which is in all wheat, barley and rye products. If gluten is triggering your migraines you can't have english muffins, bagels or pasta made with wheat.

    Gluten is my trigger. Yeah, its hard, but it's worth avoiding. I haven't had a migraine in 6 months- I was having them 2-3 times week. - 12/14/2013 8:19:45 AM
  • As I've gotten older mine have mostly been just that aura that comes and goes. I got that at mile 11 of my half marathon in October and it was very hard not to tense up and freak out thinking I might be getting my first full-blown migrane in ages.

    Fortunately, the light show grew and disappeared & that was that.

    My granddaughter has just hit puberty and is suffering mightily. But she's a smart girl and is trying to track what she eats and what she does so we're hoping we can find her triggers. - 11/26/2013 7:00:40 AM
  • Suffered from severe migraines for many years but was never able to find a trigger food, but knew bright sunshine on water or snow triggered them.
    Hysterectomy put an end to migraines, but I still occasionally have the "aural vision" that preceded the headache.
    And this winter I had two episodes my friends said were "silent migraines".
    An endocronologist once told me a migraine is really a form of seizure. I agreed since my body quivered inside when I had one.
    Unfortunately some of my children and grandchildren suffer migraines. - 6/20/2013 7:44:37 PM
  • BAMAJAM
    My severe headaches were frequent, and they were torture for me----each one lasting days, along with violent nausea. Menopause was my relief! My doctor said the same "cure" happened to his mother. There is a downside to menopause for some women, but not for me. I am lucky indeed that the change in hormones was my successful cure to this wretched pain--! - 6/20/2013 2:53:25 PM
  • FKBENSON82
    So, this is my first spark people comment, but it's so close to home. I've had migraines and other types of debilitating headaches for as long as I can remember. When I started investigating nutritional ways of treating my boys' Tourettes I became aware of migraine triggers in myself as well. My two BIG triggers are autolyzed yeast extract and red food dye, besides the better known culprits aspartame and sugary foods for a hypoglycemic. I've found just trying to stick with natural/whole foods is best for me. I'm probably the biggest and quickest label reader I know now, mostly because I know just what to look for. Could you possibly include tips on how to detect these triggers for those who are unsure. Thanks for sparking! - 6/20/2013 11:18:45 AM
  • DBRADLEY84
    I have had migraines for over 50 yrs. And I have tried everything under the sun. When I stopped trying so many things that were recommended and were supposedly cures for the headaches , I felt better. I tried too hard to make them work. I was too busy worryinb about what not to eat or do, I was causing the headaches to get worse. I still have the headaches but not as often. - 6/20/2013 10:48:11 AM
  • Interesting, but I see sugar listed as a safe food and as an OK ingredient in many foods. I know many people in addition to me who find sweets to be a trigger. So I know to also avoid any concentrated sugar products.
    - 6/20/2013 10:20:46 AM
  • I have a minimum of 2-6 migraines a month and honestly food is usually not the trigger. I eat wheat all the time, in fact every day for breakfast I eat either Multigrain Cheerios or some form of flake cereal. (Some have thought Gluten was the culprit). I love cheese, especially sharp, so that is all we eat. I choose mustard over ketchup for the calories and it doesn't trigger anything. I don't drink caffeine, it makes me emotional, it doesn't give me migraines. I don't drink alcohol either.

    So, I look at this article and think, "ya ya whatever, doesn't apply the, what else to you have??"

    I know smells bother me, lights bother, so no flashing lights or bright ones right in my eyes.

    So, my search continues. Thanks anyway.

    rumbamel - 6/20/2013 9:45:08 AM
  • I had severe migraines from my college days to about 56yrs old. They were diagnosed as cluster migraines because they would come and go lasting about 2-3 months, then going away for 6 months to sometimes 2 years. When I was in a cycle I had to avoid any alcohol, chinese food, and Cheez-its!
    So now that I am 60, I have been migraine free for 4 1/2 years. I am convinced they had to be tied to hormonal imbalances. Now that I am past menopause, I am free.

    To those of you still suffering from these horrible headaches, my heart goes out to you. Many times I thought, "please just let me die." I did find one thing that worked well during my last 3 cycles. The doctor ordered oxygen for me. I kept an oxygen tank ready and at the first signs of a headache I would breathe oxygen through a mask for 5-10 minutes. It stopped the headache in its tracks. Just a thought. - 6/20/2013 8:05:49 AM
  • LLOYDIS
    I had been experiencing migraines for many many years (30), until i eventually decided enough is enough!! Through the food elimination process, i finally discovered that processed cheese and margarine were the main culprits! Further experiments proved that anatto was indeed the main cause for my migraines. Since avoiding the processed cheeses, and going for organic cheese only, and substituting margarine for butter, i no longer have migraines. I am totally cured of this horrible menace!! :-) - 6/20/2013 7:14:37 AM
  • I've been having migraines of varying severity (from "annoying pain behind my left ear" to "dark room no noise now!") since I was a teen. I can prevent them from becoming overwhelming by taking a high dose of OTC pain meds with a full pot of coffee at the onset, or I have to knock myself out with a custom-made cocktail if the method doesn't help.

    The only trigger foods I have are MSG and artificial anything (especially artificial food coloring- hello blue raspberry!). Everything else has no impact at all or is helpful. - 6/20/2013 4:56:06 AM
  • Been dealing with migraines almost all my life, as has my father, two brothers and my sister. All of us just about share the main trigger off MSG - usually the stuff in Chinese food and soy sauce and the likes. I try to avoid that as much as possible now, as well as keeping up my balance between caffeine drinks and water. ALWAYS stay hydrated, as that can trigger migraines as well. - 6/16/2013 11:06:52 PM
  • M-F-PECK
    Sounds like a complete list. Doesn't leave much to enjoy. - 6/9/2013 10:06:14 AM