BY DEFINITION, A ‘FOOD ALLERGY’ AND ‘FOOD INTOLERANCE’ ARE TWO VERY DIFFERENT RESPONSES TO FOODS.
A food allergy can be diagnosed by examining the Immunoglobulin E (IgE) levels to a specific food. Food allergy symptoms may include, eczema, asthma or life-threatening anaphylaxis. A true food allergy requires the complete omittance of that food from the diet. The only definitive way to assess food intolerances is by eliminating a particular food (or a compound in foods, such as amines) and then re-introducing it to see if the symptoms return - other testing methods give false negatives and false positives. The proof really is in an individual’s response. Food intolerance symptoms may include; gut problems, headaches, migraines, changes in mood and/or behaviour, just to name a few. It is believed that people with food intolerances have a threshold up to which they are able to tolerate certain foods before symptoms persist. Many people today tend to group everything under one umbrella and simply refer to all of these conditions (except anaphylaxis) as a ‘food reaction’ or ‘food sensitivity’. This is a result of people noticing that their symptoms were once a challenge for them and no longer exist when they avoid a certain food. As a health professional, I’ve always looked to discern if this is due to the immune system reacting to a food or if something with an individual’s health status has changed. For example, did they recently have ‘Bali belly’ and now they are bloated all the time? In this case, it is gut function that has changed and avoiding certain foods may be necessary in the short term, but it’s gut healing that needs to be the focus. Regardless of the medical mechanisms behind each of these conditions, the public are noticing that intolerances and allergies are on the rise. More and more restaurants are catering for people who avoid dairy and gluten, while many schools are becoming incredibly strict with what students can and can’t bring for lunch, in case another student with an allergy consumes something they must avoid.
Research confirms that food allergies are on the rise across developed countries. A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests, between 1997 and 2011 food allergies among children increased by approximately 50%. Despite this alarming increase, researchers still aren’t sure why. There are many hypotheses though and plenty of research is being done. It can’t happen fast enough.
WHAT FOODS ARE COMMONLY AT FAULT?
The foods most likely to trigger allergies are cow’s milk, wheat (gluten or another component in the wheat), seafood, soy, fish, tree nuts and peanuts. There is an increase of people diagnosed with coeliac disease and individuals who feel gluten doesn’t support great health for them - whether through measurable symptoms, such as autoimmune markers or symptom reporting, such as bloating. Additionally, many people have sensitivities to various preservatives and additives found in processed food products. There are also substances that occur naturally in foods, such as fructose, phenolic compounds, amines and salicylates that people commonly react to. What has become known as the FODMAPs plan has helped many people resolve food reaction symptoms and those suffering with IBS symptoms.
COPING WITH A FOOD ALLERGY, INTOLERANCE OR SENSITIVITY
Sometimes the reaction in our body is so severe that we immediately know not to consume it again. Other times, the reaction might be more subtle. Our body could be telling us it doesn’t want to consume it anymore, through an unyielding symptom, such as tiredness, bloating, IBS symptoms, regular bouts of illness, reflux, headaches, sleeping issues, dark circles under our eyes, eczema, skin redness or breakouts.One of the most commonly used ways to explore whether we might have a food intolerance is through an elimination diet, under the direction of a professional with experience in this area. An elimination diet involves removing the offending substance or compound from your diet for a number of weeks and then reintroducing it to see how your body responds.
People with a sensitivity to a substance often find that they feel incredible once they remove the item from their diet and notice immediately how it affects them as soon as they reintroduce it. It is important to work with a health professional through this process, to ensure you are not missing out on any vital nutrients through avoiding the consumption of a particular substance.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE THAT IS BEST TO AVOID?
Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that are important plant nutrients that naturally occur in the environment, but they are also added to some foods as a preservative. All processed meats (unless nitrate free is specified), including bacon, ham and salami, contain nitrate and nitrite-derived additives, which have been shown to have cancer-causing properties. Another study linked regular consumption of nitrates to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other diseases, possibly through the damaging effect of nitrosamines on DNA. Sulphites are another compound that are best avoided, used commonly in many processed or cooked foods, medicine and of course used in wine to prevent bacterial growth. In processed foods ingredients, such as corn starch, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, potato starch, glucose syrup and the caramel colour used in cola drinks might all contain sulphites, depending on the manufacturer. One of the best ways we can support a healthy gut and immune system is to eat more real food. By reducing our intake of processed foods and coming back to eating more whole foods, the way they come from nature, we naturally avoid preservatives, additives, colourings and flavours, as well as a host of synthetic substances. Our bodies know what to do with real food and this simple transition can benefit our gut bacteria profiles and immune response immensely.