There is much in the media these days about food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. It seems that everyone has one or more and they are blamed for everything from acne to headaches and fatigue and weight gain. But what exactly are they and should you be concerned?
First of all, we have to distinguish the very important difference between them. According to WebMD food allergies are “an abnormal response to a food that is triggered by the immune system.” This is different from a food intolerance, which can cause similar symptoms but is not caused by the immune system. An example would be milk. Being allergic to milk would mean that ingesting it would trigger your immune system and cause a reaction that may include hives, swelling of the esophagus, and difficulty breathing. Treatment of an episode might require an epi pen shot. On the other hand, being intolerant to milk would mean that your body cannot break down the sugar in milk known as lactose. Ingesting milk would then result in digestive upset which may include cramping and diarrhea.
Actual food allergies are not very common, with only 4% of the population having clinically proven allergies. Food intolerances can be more prevalent and are often self diagnosed through trial and error. For example, if you notice that your stomach is always upset after eating certain foods you may experiment by eating said food and then seeing how you feel. If you notice a reaction you may decide to avoid the food for your own comfort. Unlike an allergy, which can be life threatening, most food intolerances are simply uncomfortable.
Where things get tricky is when we start talking about food sensitivities. This term is not regulated and technically there is no way to diagnose a food sensitivity. Blood testing for food sensitivities is becoming common. Often a naturopath or someone similar will charge to do a blood test and then give you a list of foods that you should avoid because you are “sensitive” to them. Much of the time this will also include a list of recommended supplements that the naturopath also sells. According to Dr. Levine, a food allergy specialist in Toronto, the problem is that the information you get from such a blood test is not appropriate for making a diagnosis of food allergies or sensitivities.
So we have established that food allergies are very real and should be diagnosed by a doctor. Food intolerances are real as well, but are not as dangerous as allergies and are not necessarily worth a trip to your doctor. Food sensitivities are a tricky area and I would advise staying away from anyone wanting to test your blood and use that information to tell you what you shouldn’t be eating, because science doesn’t back that up. But what if you don’t have allergies but you do have symptoms sometimes and you don’t know what is causing them? You can try an elimination diet. There are many variations of the elimination diet but the basic premise is simple.
1. For a period of at least three weeks eliminate foods that commonly cause intolerances. Include dairy, soy, red meat, gluten, and possibly also sugar and caffeine. During this time drink lots of water and eat plenty of vegetables. This is not a diet, so the point is not to lose weight. Eat from the foods you can still have!
2. After the restriction period, start to add the foods back, one at a time. So maybe on the first day you will have some yogurt, but still continue to abstain from any of the other eliminated food groups. Pay close attention to how you feel.
3. The next day, try the next food. Also, avoid the food that you tried the day before to eliminate any cross contamination.
4. Continue this process until you are either finished or you identify your trigger foods. At this point you can see your doctor with what you have learned, or you can simply eliminate the food from your diet. However, if you are eliminating an entire food group, like dairy, I strongly suggest seeing a qualified dietician to help you structure a healthy diet with your new requirements.
If this simple elimination doesn’t help and you still are having symptoms, then it’s time to see a dietician and do further testing.
This article was researched and written by Follow @DaraCoxPT
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