Food is a key aspect of our lives. Food intake is necessary for survival, but it's much more than that. Food has a huge social aspect. Social events usually involve eating together. In addition, being a "foodie" is actually a thing, and usually leads to being an interesting person.
With food playing such an important role it's necessary to be comfortable eating your choice of food whenever with whoever. So you might think you might be intolerant to a particular food, but "intolerances" usually are general symptoms that mimic many other conditions. So the first step is ruling out whether the symptoms are due to an allergic reaction.
Food Allergy vs Food Intolerance: How to Tell
|Food Allergy||Food Intolerance|
|Caused by immune system reaction||Immune system not involved|
|Symptoms triggered by a small portion, even traces||Symptoms result depending on portion size|
|Symptoms triggered immediately||Symptoms manifest gradually over a few hours|
|Life threatening||NOT Life threatening|
A food allergy is therefore an immune system response when the body mistakes a particular food as a harmful substance. The body releases certain chemicals, such as histamine, which cause the allergic reaction.
On the other hand a food intolerance is triggered by naturally occurring substances within foods. These substances can in some cases arise due to specific processing methods or are added during processing.
Common symptoms and causes
In most cases the symptoms vary from digestive tract ones like bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea to skin-level symptoms such as itching and rashes.
While often unclear as to why a person is sensitive to a particular type of food, it is usually easier to link cause (food) and effect (symptom).
Lactose intolerance. When symptoms happen after eating dairy products it means the body is unable to digest lactose, a natural sugar found in milk, yoghurt and soft cheeses. Your G.P. can usually diagnose lactose intolerance by looking at your symptoms and medical history.
Wheat sensitivity. When eating bread results in symtoms occurring in the digestive tract. This tolerance is more hard to pin down because bread alone might not be the cause. In fact the culprit may be a food additive, chemical or contaminant added during the process such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners food colours, preservatives or flavour enhancers.
Gluten intolerance. Right now "gluten-free" foods are trending because people think they are intolerant to it, having experienced symptoms after eating wheat. However it's hard to discern whether these symptoms are caused by an intolerance to gluten, an intolerance to something else in wheat, or nothing to do with wheat at all. Cutting out bread from your diet is therefore not a decision that should be taken lightly. Actually very few people need to cut out gluten from their diet (unless they have the "coeliac disease" condition which is a condition NOT an intolerance).
So what can be done about these?
What you can do
There are two main steps to be taken:
Step 1: Food Diary. In this case you keep a ledger of (1) what you ate (2) when (3) any symptoms. Keeping track of what goes into your digestive system and any ensuing symptoms will highlight the worst offenders over a short period of time (weeks usually).
Step 2: Elimination Diet. Steps:
- determine the worst offenders from the food diary
- remove them from your diet for the time (usually between 2 and 6 weeks) as recommended by your GP, dietician or nutritionist
- gradually reintroduce the food to see if the symptoms resurface
- guide you with the optimal length of time to keep the suspicious food item out of your diet
- ensure your diet still includes all the recommended daily nutrients while on the elimination diet
In case you're confused: What does a dietician do? Compared to a nutritionist?
Unfortunately, if symptoms do resurface, you might not be able to reintroduce that food item back into your diet at all. However most people do suffer from some form of intolerance, so you're far from being alone on this.