What is a food intolerance? Everything you need to know

What is a food intolerance? Everything you need to know

In this guide we will explore the topic of food intolerance and provide detailed insight into, common food intolerances, symptoms, triggers, diagnosis, and available treatment options.

What is a food intolerance?

A food intolerance is a condition that occurs when your body has difficulty digesting certain foods or specific ingredients within foods. Not to be confused with a food allergy, which involves an immune system response which can range in severities and in some cases become life threatening, a food intolerance typically doesn't involve the immune system. Whilst a food intolerance can cause significant discomfort, they are generally not life-threatening.

A food intolerance will typically present itself with a number of uncomfortable symptoms, such as bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and lethargy. The most common types of food intolerances include lactose where it is estimated that over 68% of the world’s population suffer from lactose malabsorption, gluten intolerance (non-celiac gluten sensitivity), fructose intolerance, and histamine intolerance.

The type of food intolerances that an individual will suffer from will vary from person to person, it is also possible for someone to suffer from multiple food intolerances at once.

Common food intolerances

People can suffer from an intolerance to any type of food, however the most common food intolerances are:

Lactose intolerance:

People with lactose intolerance have difficulty digesting lactose which is the sugar that is found in milk and milk-based products. Common trigger foods include milk, ice cream, yogurt, and cheese

Gluten intolerance:

Gluten intolerance is triggered by the consumption of gluten and foods that contain gluten. An intolerance to gluten can affect both people that have been diagnosed with Coeliac disease and those that haven’t. It is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Typical foods that contain gluten and can trigger symptoms include bread, pasta, cereals, and baked goods.

Fructose intolerance:

Fructose is a type of sugar found in fruits, honey, and is commonly used as a sweetener. Surprisingly, trigger foods can typically include food groups that are recommended as part of our daily intake including apples, pears, watermelon, high-fructose corn syrup, and certain processed foods that contain added fructose or sweeteners.

Food additives and chemicals:

Some individuals are sensitive to certain food additives, most typically sulphites. Sulphites are commonly used to prevent spoilage and maintain colour in foods and beverages. Trigger foods may include dried fruits, processed meats, wine, beer, and some packaged foods. It's worth noting that while sulphite sensitivity is often referred to as an intolerance, it can also be a trigger for many people that suffer with food allergies.

The above is not an extensive list, however they are some of the most common food intolerances.

Symptoms of a food intolerance

As mentioned earlier, food intolerance symptoms can cause discomfort and are generally not considered life-threatening. The symptoms of a food intolerance can vary from person to person and depend on the specific intolerance. Typical symptoms of a food intolerance include:

Most of the symptoms above will start to appear shortly after eating a trigger food, however some symptoms will not manifest immediately after eating.

Our guide food intolerance symptoms, delves into common and more serious symptoms that can be caused by a food intolerance.

What causes a food intolerance?

Food intolerances are typically caused by the body’s inability to digest certain foods or ingredients. It is thought that a lack of digestive enzymes can contribute to difficulty digesting certain foods.

Enzyme deficiencies can be present at birth or can develop over time, meaning that as we age, our intolerance to certain foods may change. On the other hand, people may find that their intolerances improve or resolve over time.

Gut dysbiosis

An imbalance in the bacteria in our gut, also known as gut dysbiosis, can increase our sensitivity to foods that could previously be consumed without experiencing any symptoms. Our gut microbiome helps with our body's digestive function, an imbalance can disrupt the normal functioning of the gut and present symptoms such as food intolerance, fatigue, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and in some cases have a bigger influence on our overall health.

A gut microbiome test can identify gut dysbiosis and give you a personalised plan to correct it.

How is it diagnosed?

The symptoms of a food intolerance can share similarities with other digestive disorders. To diagnose a food intolerance, it is important to try and identify your trigger foods, these are foods that will typically trigger your symptoms whenever you eat them. Keeping a food diary to make a note of everything you eat and when your symptoms arise can help with spotting patterns and ultimately identifying your trigger foods.

Medical tests

In some cases, medical tests such as blood tests, breath tests, or allergy skin prick tests may be conducted to assist in the diagnosis. Blood and breath tests can pick up a number of intolerances such as lactose which can be performed via both.

Food Intolerance test

A food intolerance test will collect a small sample of your blood for lab analysis and can help you pinpoint foods that you are intolerant to. By identifying your trigger foods, you can eliminate and replace them in your diet. The Feel Gut food intolerance test identifies how your body reacts to over 200 foods via a full lab analysis and personalised report.

Consulting with a healthcare professional, such as a gastroenterologist or allergist, is crucial to obtaining an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment of a food intolerance

Elimination diet

The primary treatment for food intolerance is to identify and remove the trigger foods from your diet. This is called an elimination diet which usually involves you working with a nutritionist to identify your trigger foods and replace them with similar foods that will not trigger your symptoms.

Over the counter supplements and medicines

Enzyme boosting supplements can help to boost your digestive enzymes. A deficiency in digestive enzymes can be linked to a food intolerance, over the counter enzyme supplements can help with symptoms such as diarrhoea, bloating and acid reflux.

Can a food intolerance turn into an allergy?

A food intolerance and food allergy are commonly confused, symptoms can sometimes be similar; however, they are both two completely different conditions. A food intolerance does not involve the body’s immune system, whereas a food allergy does.

Is it possible to develop a food intolerance over time?

Yes, it is quite common to develop food intolerances as you age. Changes in digestive function, shifts in digestive enzymes, underlying health conditions, genetics, and lifestyle factors all contribute to the development of food intolerances.

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