Food intolerances are increasingly common, affecting kids and adults alike. While allergies tend to be caused by a handful of foods that have been identified as major allergens (things like eggs, dairy, peanuts, fish and sesame) food intolerances can be caused by pretty much any food. The symptoms of allergies and intolerances can be very different or they can be quite similar, depending on the severity of the allergy. So let’s dive into food intolerances and how to identify them.
What is a food intolerance?
Firstly, what is a food intolerance? There’s a lot of confusion about what food intolerances are, how they differ from allergies, and whether it’s even a real thing. Unfortunately medical research has been slow to catch up with the increase in food intolerances, but we do know more about them now than we used to. Food intolerances and allergies are mediated by different parts of the immune response, which is why an allergy can lead to anaphylaxis (severe response) but a food intolerance does not. Food intolerances usually cause much milder symptoms than allergies, because the immune response is very different between them.
You could think of food intolerances as a more subtle reaction by your body, whereas an allergy is often a more severe reaction. Because of this, allergies are usually more obvious and easy to identify the cause (for example, swelling of the mouth or a skin rash after eating a certain food) and intolerances tend to be harder to pinpoint the culprit. A food intolerance reaction tends to happen more slowly, and symptoms may arise even a few days after eating the reactive food – making it really difficult to identify what foods you or your children are intolerant to. Luckily, there’s a few really good testing options to identify what you’re reacting to.
What are the symptoms of food intolerances?
Symptoms of food intolerances are very individual and vary from person to person. This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few of the symptoms that have been linked to food intolerances:
- Headaches & migraines
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Reflux, indigestion or heartburn
- Excessive wind or burping
- Stomach discomfort or pain
- Muscle aches
- Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Fatigue & tiredness
- Irritability, nervousness, restlessness
- Skin rashes, hives, acne
- Runny nose, congestion
If you or your children suffer from any of the above, it’s worth ruling out the possibility of food intolerances causing your symptoms.
How do you identify food intolerances?
You might have heard of an elimination diet, which is basically removing all possible reactive foods from the diet and then re-introducing them one at a time. While it might help you identify intolerances, it’s a really difficult and length process. I always recommend my clients get tested for intolerances because its the quickest and most accurate way to identify them, but there are other options if you don’t have the money to spend on a test right now.
If you suspect you or your family have intolerances, start with the food or food group you think might be the cause. Say for example its dairy – you would need to avoid all dairy & dairy products for at least 3 weeks, and after 3 weeks re-introduce dairy in a moderate amount on one day and in one meal or snack (e.g. a glass of milk or a couple of slices of cheese). Then wait at least 3 days for any response, without having any more dairy in that time. If after three days you notice no changes, no symptoms and you feel fine – assume that dairy is not causing a reaction for you at the moment. If you notice any symptoms however, after re-introducing dairy, then it is best to avoid dairy for a while.
You can follow this same process for any food you think you might be reacting to, avoiding each food or food group for at least three weeks to get the most accurate results, and giving your body at least three days for any reaction to show up.
How do you treat or manage food intolerances?
While there is no ‘cure’ as such for food intolerances, management involves identifying and then avoiding the foods you are reacting to. Because food intolerances are different to allergies, sometimes having a break from your reactive foods can be enough to change the way your body responds to it, so you might not have to avoid those foods forever. But some foods you might always have a response to – it really just depends on so many factors. Start with an elimination diet or get tested – it’s a great starting point. You can try to re-introduce foods back into your diet after 3-6 months and see how you feel!