Food intolerance differs from a food allergy. Food intolerance is a sometimes dangerous or painful reaction that occurs every time you eat a certain type of food, and worsens if the quantity of the food you eat increases. Unlike with a food allergy, in food intolerance, the immune system is not activated. Neither does food intolerance cause any psychological reactions to food. Many people have food intolerances, but they don’t know about them. Here is an explanation of food intolerances and what causes them.
What causes food intolerance?
Food intolerance happens when your body is not able to manage or digest certain types of food. It most often happens because your body is not producing any or enough of certain enzymes or other chemicals that it needs to digest that particular foodstuff.
Symptoms of food intolerance
Symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Gastrointestinal bleeding
- Anal itching
Symptoms may begin as soon as just a few minutes after you have eaten the food item and up to two hours after. You may find that after the first wave of symptoms pass, another one begins between 1 and 4 hours after. This is known as a biphasic reaction.
Tests for food intolerance
The diagnostic test for food intolerance is the elimination diet. This is, just as is seems, where foods are gradually eliminated from the diet until symptoms disappear. Another way you can eliminate food intolerance is by taking a supplemental enzyme such as Trienza. This can help your body replace any missing digestive enzymes and absorb nutrients from your food more easily.
Types of food intolerance
Lactose Intolerance: Probably the most common type of this disorder is an intolerance to cow’s milk. This is due to the body’s inability to handle lactose; a sugar present in the milk. Some people have a lack or insufficiency of the enzyme lactase, this means that their body is unable to break down, digest and absorb milk.
Alcohol intolerance: Another common example of intolerance involves a deficiency of aldehyde dehydrogenase, this is an enzyme that is required in order to break down alcohol. If you have this deficiency then drinking even small amounts of alcohol can make you very ill.
Additive intolerance: Some people are intolerant of food additives. Often, people who have severe food additive reactions also suffer from asthma or other allergies. Reactions to additives usually induce an asthma attack or cause a skin rash that looks rather like nettle rash.
The following types of additives can cause a reaction in some people:
- Sulfites: Sulfur dioxide and many other sulfites (shown on food labels as E numbers e.g. E220) are all used to preserve many foods, and in some soft drinks.
- Benzoates: Benzoic acid (E210) is used as food preservatives to prevent molds and yeasts from forming, it is found most commonly in soft drinks, so are other benzoates.
- Tartrazine: Tartrazine (E102) is a yellow food coloring that is used in a wide range of foodstuffs, sweets and soft drinks. Research has shown that eating foods or drinks containing tartrazine can cause rhinitis, urticaria and dermatitis asthma.
If you think you may have a food intolerance, you should keep a food diary to help you track down exactly what is causing your symptoms. Catalogue every single thing you eat or drink, the symptoms that occur, when they occur and how long they last. After you have kept your log for a week, look back over the record and highlight any correlations and patterns. Don’t just look for immediate reactions, remember some can occur hours after you have eaten. It might take you a little time to figure out exactly what you’re intolerant to, but it’s worth all the detective work so you can finally eliminate it.
Always check the list of ingredients when you buy packaged food, so you are aware of the “hidden” additives. For example, some people may find they have a reaction when they eat white bread, but it may not be the bread itself they are intolerant to but one of its ingredients. If you’re eating out, don’t forget to find out what you meal is cooked in, you may have an intolerance to a particular type of cooking oil, herb or spice.
When you’ve narrowed your food items down, begin to eliminate them one by one for a period of two weeks until your symptoms stop. Then you will know which is making you ill and you can reintroduce the others.
Callum Finch is a dietician who enjoys helping people make friends with food. An avid writer, he loves to share his insights with others on many lifestyle and health websites.