Could you have a food intolerance?

Published February 17, 2015

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A food intolerance is when the body has difficulty digesting a certain food. It’s different to a ‘food allergy’ as it doesn’t involve the immune system, shouldn’t cause serious allergy symptoms and won’t show up on an allergy test.1Compared to allergies, food intolerance is usually less of a concern, although, in some people they can still be a cause of distress. They may increase the frequency and severity of migraines, lead to rashes, nervousness, allergy-like symptoms or digestive upset. A person with a food intolerance may only experience symptoms after a certain amount of the offending food is eaten.2

Substances in foods that can cause an intolerance reaction in some people include:

  • Lactose – If you have an inability to digest lactose and you may experience abdominal bloating, pain, diarrhea, nausea and/or gas after eating dairy products.3 This is because you’ll have low levels of lactase, the enzyme needed to breakdown lactose into absorbable components. Lactose should be broken down in the small intestine. When it’s not, which is what happens when there is a deficiency of lactase, it passes through to the colon, a part of the large intestine, where it’s partially broken down by bacteria. This fermentation process causes the typical digestive discomfort of lactose intolerance. Most foods require some enzyme activity to be digested and enzyme deficiencies are an important factor in food intolerance.
  • Gluten – An intolerance to gluten can cause symptoms such as abdominal disturbance, bloating, fatigue and weight loss, and may cause poor absorption of some nutrients after eating gluten-containing foods.1
  • Fructose – Some people are unable to absorb fructose properly, which is a sugar found in fruits, some vegetables, honey, fruit drinks and soft drinks, and eating fructose foods can cause abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea and gas.4
  • Salicylates – Salicylates are natural compounds found in a wide variety of herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables. The vast majority of people can eat salicylate-containing foods without problems, however they can trigger hives and other symptoms in others.1
  • Food Additives2 – A wide variety of natural and artificial additives are used to color, preserve and process food and these may trigger symptoms in susceptible people.
  • Flavour enhancers – Flavor enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate), often labelled as E620 or E621, can cause intolerance reactions in sensitive people.1
  • Toxins – Some foods contain toxins that can sometimes lead to intolerance reactions. For example, when chickpeas or kidney beans are under-cooked, they contain aflotoxins, which can cause symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea.5
  • Histamine – Some foods naturally contain histamine and some of these, such as fish, can develop a build-up of histamine as they age if they’re not stored properly. In certain people, histamine in food can cause rashes, stomach pains, diarrhea or vomiting.5

If you suspect that you may have a food intolerance, keep a food and symptom diary for a few weeks to see if any patterns emerge. Record everything you eat and drink, and the times and duration of your symptoms, even if they appear unrelated. If you’re suspicious of a certain food, you could also try avoiding it for two weeks to see if symptoms improve and then reintroduce it to see if symptoms recur. A specialist doctor, dietitian, nutritionist or naturopath can also help you to identify food intolerance and help you manage your symptoms.

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