Exploring the Differences Between Food Intolerance and Food Allergies
Food intolerance, also known as food sensitivity, occurs when your digestive system struggles to break down certain foods. Unlike food allergies, food intolerance affects the digestive system and leads to symptoms like gas, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain. Food intolerance is not life-threatening and typically manifests within a few hours after eating the problematic food. In some cases, consuming a small amount of the food may not trigger symptoms.
Food allergies, on the other hand, involve the immune system. They occur when the immune system mistakenly identifies a protein or ingredient in food as a threat, leading to an allergic reaction. This reaction can cause hives, swelling, shortness of breath, and even anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially fatal reaction. Allergic symptoms usually appear within minutes of consuming even a small amount of the allergenic food.
Common Types of Food Intolerance and Their Causes
The most common types of food intolerance include lactose intolerance, histamine intolerance, and gluten sensitivity.
- Lactose intolerance arises when the body lacks enough lactase enzyme to break down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.
- Histamine intolerance occurs due to insufficient diamine oxidase enzyme, which breaks down histamines present in certain foods like cheese, pineapples, bananas, avocados, and chocolate.
- Gluten sensitivity is distinct from celiac disease as it involves difficulty digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.
Food intolerances often result from inadequate production of specific enzymes needed for digestion. The exact causes of food intolerances remain unclear, but certain gastrointestinal conditions, such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), may make individuals more susceptible.
Recognising the Symptoms and Diagnosis of Food Intolerances
Symptoms of food intolerance encompass abdominal pain, diarrhoea, gas and bloating, headaches or migraines, heartburn, nausea, and an upset stomach.
Diagnosing food intolerances involves various approaches. Lactose intolerance can be detected through a hydrogen breath test, where high levels of hydrogen in the breath indicate the presence of undigested lactose. Gluten sensitivity and histamine intolerance lack specific tests, but food diaries and elimination diets can provide insights. By tracking meals and symptoms, temporarily eliminating certain foods from the diet, and observing symptom patterns, individuals can identify potential food intolerances.
Dietary Adjustments and Treatment Options
Managing food intolerances typically involves dietary adjustments. Some people find that consuming small amounts of problem foods minimises symptoms. Over-the-counter medications like antacids or antidiarrheals can help alleviate symptoms. Lactose-intolerant individuals can opt for lactose-free milk and dairy products or use lactase enzymes available in the form of pills or drops. Cutting out dairy completely may necessitate calcium and vitamin D supplementation. Similarly, reducing gluten intake might require increased consumption of fresh produce, gluten-free whole grains, and other nutrient-rich foods to maintain a balanced diet.
When To Seek Medical Attention
Although food intolerances are lifelong conditions, most people can effectively manage their symptoms by avoiding trigger foods. While food intolerance can be inconvenient and the symptoms unpleasant, it is not life-threatening like a food allergy.
Seek medical attention if you experience extreme abdominal pain or diarrhoea, have a severe reaction to food, or experience unexplained weight loss.