I have been lucky not to suffer with any food intolerances that I am aware of. I have always felt a little sick drinking cows milk, but I was aware of this from a young age and swapped milk out for soy quite early on. That is not to say that I had no digestive issues at all, in fact looking back my digestion was appalling. I used to suffer from cramping and constipation all the time but I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal until I changed my diet. Once I increased my fibre intake and started eating more fruits, veggies and whole grains as well as drinking more water and stopped skipping meals I became regular and cramp free. Now my digestion behaves itself quite well although it hates it when I snack.
So although I cannot speak from personal experience I feel like I must write an article about food intolerances because it is the number one question I receive on my recipes. 90% of the questions I get asked are about swapping certain ingredients in my recipes due to food intolerances. Here we go!
What is Food Intolerance:
Food Intolerance literally means an inability to fully digest a certain food. The result is partially digested proteins and sugars that now circulate throughout your intestines and interfere with the ability for you to absorb other nutrients from your food. Unlike food allergy which is caused by the immune system and can be life threatening, the majority of the symptoms are usually localised to the digestive system. However, issues with the digestion often translate to other parts of the body as well. The symptoms of food intolerance are usually delayed 1-3 days after eating the food itself.
Symptoms of Food Intolerance:
There are many symptoms associated with food intolerances. Besides gastro intestinal symptoms, many of the symptoms are indirectly related. The inability to digest foods means that your body is not getting the nutrients it requires to function optimally which can lead to your whole system being out of balance. For example, a lot of our serotonin (neurotransmitter responsible for good mood) is produced in the gut so when the digestion is compromised then your moods is compromised too. Food intolerance has been associated with symptoms of:
- Bloating, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis
- Skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis and eczema
- Weight gain & sugar cravings
- Depression and mood changes
- Sore muscles, weakness, arthritis, gout
- Fertility issues
- Compromised immune system: allergies and frequent infections
- Nutrient malabsorption: anaemia and osteoporosis
Please be aware that having any of the above symptoms does not mean you have food intolerances and can be a sign of other factors. It is best to investigate things properly with a health care professional or do your own research to make sure.
What Causes Food Intolerance:
I have found it difficult to find enough information on the causes of food intolerance. In general, it is accepted that you just are intolerant to certain foods, and for many people this is the case. There is of course a genetic link and normal differences in individuals. However, the fact that food intolerances are rising at a rapid rate does suggest that certain elements in our diet and lifestyle may be to blame.
- Processed foods: Processed foods are nearly always devoid of beneficial nutrients but loaded with chemical additives, colouring and preservatives. In many cases the body first reacts to the foreign chemical found in the food and then by association will develop a reaction to the food.
- Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and GMO crops: The increase in chemical pesticides and the like has greatly contributed to the rise in food intolerances and food allergies. Peanuts for example have a natural composition that allows them to absorb and concentrate the pesticides they have been sprayed with. It is thought that peanut allergy is actually caused by the increased levels of pesticides found in peanuts and not the peanuts themselves. Similarly, by association your body then develops a reaction to the entire food. GMO crops are bred to be able withstand higher levels of pesticides than regular crops, up to 1000 times more pesticides than usual which can again lead to allergies and intolerances
- Pharmaceutical drugs: Our quick fix society means that people are popping pills for every ailment with little regard to the side effects or consequences of the drugs they are taking. Many over the counter pills and prescription pills can affect the digestive system leading to things like constipation or diarrhea, decreased stomach emptying times (causing pain) as well as disruption your natural gut flora and physically damaging your digestive tract leading to ulcers, inflammation and a decreased ability to absorb nutrients.
- Hormonal contraception: Many women are surprised to find that hormonal contraception such as the pill and other type of hormonal contraception as well as hormone replacement therapy can have very negative affects on the digestive tract. It is thought that contraception is one of the main reasons why more women will develop a gluten intolerance compares to men. Artificial hormones can wreck havoc on your intestines, disrupting the normal flow of things in your intestines as well as other parts of the body. I have personally seen people develop gluten intolerances after being on hormone replacement therapy that were never there to begin with. Of course a hormonally triggered food intolerance is not limited only to gluten, it can cause a whole range of digestive issues and many studies have linked it to an increased chance of developing severe digestive conditions such as chrones disease.
- Alcohol and drug abuse: I thought this cause would be obvious but I feel like many people, women in particular are oblivious to just how much damage even a little bit of alcohol can do to the linings of your digestive tract and your liver. Alcohol and drugs not only cause imbalances like all of the above points but they physically strip off the layers of your intestinal lining, making it impossible for your body to absorb the nutrients it needs. No matter how healthy your diet is, if you have an alcohol habit you are undoing all of the good work you have done with your good food choices. Women in particular are more susceptible to damage from alcohol, often times you will find food intolerance issues springing up years later as a result of too much drinking and partying while young.
- Enzymes: Sometimes your body just does not produce the enzymes it needs for proper digestion. This may be a genetic thing or it can be a result of damage by lifestyle or diet choices.
What are the most common Food Intolerances:
You can literally be intolerant to anything. I know of people that are intolerant to garlic, onion, black pepper, tomatoes, grapes, and many other weird things which are of course healthy and good for you. There are however a few foods that are most commonly associated with food intolerance. These are not the same as food allergies which can produce a very severe immune reaction. The main intolerance foods are:
– Gluten and wheat
How to find out if you have a food intolerance:
Food intolerances are poorly diagnosed and not well understood by Doctors and health practitioners. In most cases you will need to keep a food diary for 2 weeks, eliminate food groups one at a time and then re- introduce them to your diet and monitor your response.
In Australia, there are also a number of food intolerance tests on the market that for the most part are performed by alternative medicine practitioners. They are usually not recognised by mainstream medicine. Recently there has been some advancement in the technology to test food intolerances that is slowly being introduced into mainstream medical practices, especially in Europe where a few countries are using this technology as standard procedure when visiting a nutritionist of dietician for the first time.
What to do if you have a food intolerance:
Keeping a food diary is still a beneficial thing to do even if you decide to take a test since you may be able to pick up a few different things like food interactions and eating behaviours that your body may not like. After you have discovered what you food intolerances are, your only choice is to eliminate them from your diet and allow your body to heal and start digesting things properly again. In some cases, supplementing with digestive enzymes and pro biotics is also very helpful as well as improving your eating behaviours. Cut out the alcohol and caffeine, develop an eating schedule your body can get used to, consider getting rid of hormonal contraception and pharmaceutical drugs if possible and eat unprocessed whole foods, organic if necessary. These should all help get your digestion and other related issues back on track. It takes time and effort so be patient and support your body in the best way that you can!