food that causes headaches

The Healthy-Diet Headache

Citrus and other virtuous foods might be migraine culprits.

You work out and eat right to feel your best, but some of your food choices might be sabotaging your efforts. “You are what you eat: that’s as true for migraines and headaches as it is for heart disease and strokes,” says Vincent Martin, M.D., President of the National Headache Foundation and professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Certain foods can trigger headaches or migraines, and not just guilty pleasures like greasy Chinese takeout. Fruits, nuts, and other healthy foods can cause problems in susceptible people, too.

Food triggers are hard to identify because they don't wreak havoc every time. Everyone has a personal headache threshold, influenced by stress, sleep quality, and food consumption. “On a good day, you can eat or drink whatever you want, and you can get away with it,” says David Buchholz, M.D., author of Heal Your Headache and neurology professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “On bad days, anything you eat can put you over the top.”

If you’re plagued by headaches, start by avoiding these triggers. Re-introduce those that don’t cause problems:

(1) Caffeine: Increased tolerance or withdrawal can cause pounding headaches.

“Where you get into trouble is with a dependence on it, if you consume too much,” says Carolyn Bernstein, M.D., Harvard University Medical School neurology professor and author of The Migraine Brain.

Advice: Limit coffee to one cup daily.

(2) Healthy fats: Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both heart-healthy, however, the latter are not ideal for migraine sufferers.

“Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to be anti-inflammatory, but foods high in omega-6 fatty acids are thought to be pro-inflammatory,” Martin says. “Inflammation can lead to headaches.”

Advice: Eat omega-3-rich salmon, trout, walnuts, almonds and olive oil. Avoid omega-6-rich safflower oil, peanuts, and cashews.


(3) Fruit: Grapefruit and bananas contain high levels of the amino acid, tyramine, which could promote headaches. 

“The whole range of citrus fruits and bananas are seemingly healthy items that could be migraine triggers,” Buchholz says.

Advice: Favor berries instead.

(4) Chocolate: Many cite this confection as a trigger, but it actually shouldn’t cause headaches.

“Chocolate is probably one of the least-proven triggers,” says Martin, who notes that only 2% of migraine sufferers who kept food diaries were sensitive to chocolate.

Advice: Consume reasonably.