With the free-from aisles growing in the supermarkets, and non-dairy milks available in every café, many people are avoiding food groups that they don’t feel agree with them. This might be because they’ve noticed that onions make them bloat, or bread makes them feel tired – but are these allergies, intolerances or sensitivities? And why does it matter?
Symptoms and triggers of food allergies
Food allergies are the most serious of these three categories. Allergies involve the body’s immune system and can be life threatening. They often go hand-in-hand with other allergic conditions such as eczema and/or hay fever. After eating a food that triggers the immune system (the body incorrectly believes the food is a threat and reacts accordingly), a response takes place within seconds or minutes. Symptoms may include:
- an itching mouth, throat, ears
- swelling of the face, especially eyes and lips
- a raised, itchy rash
- difficulty breathing, swallowing or talking
Please note that any difficulty breathing, swallowing or talking should be treated as a medical emergency and 999 called immediately.
Although there are many different foods that may cause an allergic reaction, the main ones are:
- tree nuts
It is important to work with the GP to understand which foods trigger a response and remove these completely from the diet. The good news? Many children will find their allergies disappear as they grow up, meaning that they can tolerate foods that were once off limits. Testing the allergy, and reintroducing foods to the diet should also be done under medical supervision. Find out more about food allergies here.
Food intolerances – a digestive issue
Unlike food allergies, food intolerances do not activate the immune response. Instead they are an inability to digest certain foods, often due to a lack of digestive enzymes. For example, people with a lactose intolerance are missing the lactase enzyme needed to digest lactose in dairy products.
Symptoms of an intolerance are slower to appear than those of an allergy, often developing several hours after eating the trigger food. They might include:
- stomach cramps
- joint pain
- brain fog
With food intolerances, it is again important to identify the food culprits and remove them from the diet as much as possible. Gluten (in wheat) and dairy are often the main causes of intolerances.
Which brings us to food sensitivities
Food sensitivities cover the remaining reactions to foods and drinks. It may be that after drinking coffee someone has a raise heartbeat and feels flushed, in which case it could be said that they have a sensitivity to caffeine.
Food sensitivities are often the result of poor digestive health, the so called ‘leaky gut’ which allows food particles to cross from inside the digestive tract into the blood where they can cause symptoms similar to those of food intolerances. Stress can often play a role in impaired digestion.
Supporting the digestive tract with healing foods and supplements, while working on reducing stress, can help reduce food sensitivities over time.
How to test for food intolerances and sensitivities
An elimination diet is the gold standard test for intolerances and sensitivities. This involves removing suspected foods from the diet for a period of 2-4 weeks, and then reintroducing them one at a time while keeping a symptom diary to note any reactions.
However, I speak from experience when I say that elimination diets can be a bit of a minefield. It is often difficult to pinpoint the culprits on your own. For this reason I recommend undertaking an elimination diet with the support of a trained nutritional therapist to really unravel the causes of symptoms. Otherwise you may find that you’ve spent a long time depriving yourself of foods you love, yet feel no clearer or wiser by the end of the challenge.
Want to know more?
Are you currently suffering from bloating, pain, fatigue or any of the other symptoms above? If you would like to identify what might be the cause, then please get in touch and let’s chat. I’d love to help you enjoy as many foods as possible without pain or discomfort.