There are a lot of different reactions you can have towards food. You might even notice that some restaurants present menus that explicitly mention what’s “gluten-free” or “dairy-free.” These are some indicators that the establishment is mindful about dietary restrictions one might have. Usually this would accommodate certain preferences, such as being pescatarian, vegetarian, or vegan – and a nutritionist can help you find the best alternatives if you need to make the switch.
For those unfamiliar, having these types of labels may come across as nit-picky, but for those who are sensitive or allergic to certain food and beverages, this extra step goes a long way to save someone from health complications that range from a bad trip to the toilet, to the emergency room.
Ever experience an upset stomach after a completely normal meal? Or do you suddenly feel your throat itch or tongue swell after something you’ve eaten? Those are some signs that your body is negatively reacting to a particular ingredient. But before getting into it, we need to talk about the difference between a food intolerance, food allergy, and food sensitivity.
What is food intolerance?
A food intolerance, also known as food sensitivity, is when you have difficulty digesting certain foods or ingredients in food. While usually not considered serious, it could leave you feeling unwell if you eat food you’re sensitive to. Some common symptoms you might notice a few hours after eating include stomach pain, constipation, bloating, diarrhea, and farting. But apart from affecting your gut, it could also leave you with a headache, joint pain, or feelings of tiredness and exhaustion. These symptoms typically last for a few hours or days.
How is it different from food allergies?
A food allergy is different because it affects your immune system. It’s your body’s way of reacting to certain proteins found in the food you’ve eaten. This allergic reaction can range in severity from mild to life-threatening in the form of skin rashes, itching and swelling, dizziness, and anaphylaxis (the closing of airways) which can be fatal. Some of the most common food allergies involve milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (including almonds, walnuts, etc.), soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.
How common are food intolerances?
It’s said that 15-20% of the population has food intolerance, and are most commonly found in those with digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The most common type? Lactose intolerance. It’s when your body is unable to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products like cheese, milk and yogurt.
One of the main symptoms of lactose intolerance is getting tummy pain right after eating something containing lactose. These symptoms can be avoided by lessening your dairy intake or avoiding them completely. So it should no longer come as a surprise to hear someone pass on something with cheese, milk, or cream, to name a few, lest they find themselves rushing to the bathroom.
Are there many kinds of food intolerances?
Yes, you can find yourself being intolerant to any type of food or ingredient. It could cover histamines (found in wine and cheese), caffeine (coffee, tea, and some soft drinks), sulphites (cider, beer, and wine), and gluten (bread and pasta).
What about celiac disease?
While gluten intolerance is another relatively common type of food intolerance, it should not be mistaken for the more serious celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that attacks your own tissues when you eat gluten. It damages your small intestine and stops your body from properly absorbing nutrients from food. Some symptoms that could arise include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating.
How can you get diagnosed for food intolerance?
If you think you have a food intolerance, it’s best to consult a dietitian and nutrition specialist. They may ask you to take certain tests, such as a hydrogen breath test for those lactose intolerant. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be tests for gluten sensitivity or histamine intolerance, so you may undergo an elimination diet for a few weeks to monitor what may be affecting your symptoms.
This would also involve keeping a food and symptoms diary to see if you feel any better after ruling out certain ingredients. If you notice that your symptoms are getting better during this time—and then return when you start eating the food again—that’s a sign you may have a food intolerance.
How can you get diagnosed for food allergies?
For those who might have a food allergy, your general care physician may refer you to an allergist. From that point, they will ask about your symptoms, family health history, and medical history, including other allergies. Next, they will conduct one or more allergy tests, as there are many types with different risk levels.
Some of the most common food allergy tests:
Skin prick test
It’s the most common method to test for allergies. It involves placing a drop of liquid on the skin of your arm or back, containing a protein from what you may be allergic to. Then, your skin will be pricked under the drop and you’ll be monitored for 15-30 minutes to see if a reaction occurs. If a red, itchy bump forms, it could be a sign of an allergic reaction.
Allergy blood test
This test involves measuring the level of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies in your blood. Higher levels of IgE could indicate a sign of food allergy, but can’t definitively confirm whether an allergy is present or how serious it can be. A sample of your blood will be drawn for this procedure.
Oral food challenge test
This is said to be the most accurate in diagnosing food allergies. It’s pretty straightforward—you will be asked to slowly eat the food that’s suspected to be causing your symptoms and will be watched closely for an allergic reaction. No reaction means no allergy, while a reaction confirms that you are allergic. You’ll be treated immediately afterwards.
How do you navigate food intolerances and food allergies?
Managing a food intolerance or food allergy may take some getting used to, as you have to be more mindful about the things you consume day-to-day. It’s important to avoid or reduce eating the food you’re intolerant to, but seek the advice of a dietitian and nutritionist to make sure you aren’t skipping out on any essential vitamins and minerals, which could impact your overall health.
For those diagnosed with a food allergy, you’ll need to avoid foods that trigger your symptoms as there is no cure. Make it a habit to read food labels and explain to anyone who’ll be preparing your food what your allergies are. Your allergist should also let you know how to manage reactions, like with antihistamines for mild symptoms to an autoinjector with epinephrine for more severe reactions.
Always make sure to have the advice of your doctor over self-diagnosing, so you can get the best treatment and care plan for your health concerns.