According to the UK Association of Dietitians, between 1 and 10 percent of UK residents (adults and children) have a diagnosed food intolerance or hypersensitivity.
Furthermore, up to 20 percent of the country’s population has some kind of reaction to food, causing them to believe they have a food intolerance. Do you fall into this group? Are you confused about what causes food intolerances and how they are diagnosed?
If so, this post is for you. Read on for answers to all your pressing food intolerance questions.
What is food intolerance?
Food intolerances occur when a person’s digestive system struggles to break down a particular type of food. This is also known as food sensitivity.
Food intolerance vs allergy
Food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy. The following are some critical distinctions between the two conditions:
· Food intolerance primarily affects the digestive system; Food allergy involves the immune system.
- Food intolerance occurs when the digestive system can’t break down specific foods; Food allergy occurs when the immune system views an ingredient as a threat and releases antibodies to fight it.
- Food intolerance symptoms happen within a few hours; Food allergy symptoms usually appear within a few minutes.
- Food intolerance symptoms may not occur with just a tiny amount of a particular food; Food allergy symptoms occur even after consuming minimal amounts.
Food allergies can also cause severe, life-threatening reactions like anaphylaxis, which requires immediate epinephrine treatment.
What causes food intolerance?
If someone struggles with food intolerance, they typically don’t produce a sufficient amount of a particular enzyme (other types of intolerances are as a result of reactions to naturally occurring substances in foods such as caffeine or theobromine). Enzymes are substances that accelerate chemical reactions — including breaking down food during the digestive process.
For example, if someone doesn’t produce adequate amounts of the enzyme lactase, they may struggle to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and dairy products.
Common food intolerance symptoms
If someone struggles with food intolerance, they may experience these issues:
- Abdominal pain
- Upset stomach
- Gas and bloating
Along with digestive distress, people with food intolerance might also experience the following:
- Skin rashes
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
Certain foods can also exacerbate mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Common types of food intolerance
Certain foods are more likely to cause intolerances than others. The following are some of the most well-known types of food intolerance:
Lactose is the primary sugar in milk. The body requires sufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase to digest it.
Without enough lactase, a person is lactose intolerant. They may experience nausea, diarrhoea, and other digestive issues when they consume milk or dairy products.
Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, barley, and other grains.
Gluten intolerance is different from coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease (not an intolerance or allergy); this means that the body attacks itself when food containing gluten is ingested. The lining of the digestive system is damaged in this response which in turn causes a reduction in its ability to absorb nutrients from food.
Fructose is a type of simple sugar or monosaccharide. It is often known as fruit sugar because it naturally occurs in various fruits. It’s also found in honey, sugar cane, and vegetables.
Those with fructose malabsorption (previously called dietary fructose intolerance) do not efficiently absorb fructose into the blood from the digestive system. This poor absorption causes fructose to travel to the large intestine, resulting in fermentation, which can cause digestive problems like gas, bloating, and abdominal pain.
Salicylates are natural chemicals that plants (including many fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts, honey, and coffee beans) produce as protection against disease and insects. They’re also used as preservatives.
If you’re sensitive to salicylates, you may experience digestive discomfort and allergy symptoms like a stuffy nose or hives when you consume them.
Sulphites are chemicals often used as preservatives. They also occur naturally in a variety of food including salmon, garlic, eggs, and asparagus.
Sulphite intolerance or sensitivity can trigger various problems, including hives, a stuffy nose, diarrhoea, and wheezing or coughing (and in some cases may trigger asthma).
Caffeine is a chemical known for fighting fatigue and increasing alertness. It’s found in coffee, tea, fizzy drinks, energy drinks, and chocolate.
Caffeine sensitivity is typically associated with symptoms like an elevated heartbeat, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and restlessness. Some people also experience stomach pain and other digestive issues when they consume caffeine.
Diagnosing food intolerance
It’s not always easy to tell which food (or foods) a person cannot tolerate.
For example, say you eat a cheese sandwich and feel sick afterwards. How do you know if the gluten in the bread or the lactose in the cheese caused your stomach pain?
The following are some strategies you can use to determine the foods you shouldn’t consume:
Traditionally, the process of diagnosing food intolerance involved an elimination diet.
This diet requires you to eliminate all potentially problematic foods (such as gluten and dairy) from your diet for 30 days. Then, you reintroduce those foods one at a time to see which one causes issues.
This method is time-consuming and requires a lot of diligent label-reading. Not everyone has the time or patience for it — especially if your problems are particularly distressing and impact your quality of life.
Finger-Prick Blood Test
If you’re not interested in spending a month or longer on an elimination diet, consider a finger-prick blood test instead.
A finger-prick blood test is a quick and easy way to determine which foods are behind your symptoms. It requires just a small drop of blood, collected at a food intolerance clinic or physician’s office.
The blood sample is analysed to measure the presence of antibodies for various foods and ingredients. This information helps you understand the specific foods to which your body reacts.
A finger-prick test is much faster and less frustrating than an elimination diet. You get answers much faster, which allows you to eliminate the right foods and avoid cutting out more items than are necessary.
Do you suspect you have a food intolerance?
If you frequently struggle with bloating, abdominal pain, or nausea and don’t know the cause, food intolerance could be part of the problem.
Are you ready to get to the bottom of your symptoms? A food intolerance test is the first step.