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When Food Hurts: Dealing With Food Intolerances
If you’ve ever had an allergic reaction from a food, you most likely won’t eat it again. These reactions can be serious and even life threatening. Extreme reactions can include anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal with symptoms that include low blood pressure and swelling of the mouth and throat that can lead to death if not treated immediately.
Anaphylaxis causes a series of other serious reactions including hives and rashes, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, anxiety, confusion, coughing, slurred speech, facial swelling, trouble breathing, wheezing, difficulty swallowing, and itchy skin.
Globally, the newest data on the prevalence of food allergy suggests that both reported and actual rates of allergies are increasing.
In a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers wrote that food allergies could be the “second wave” of the allergy epidemic. Asthma was the first wave.
“Food allergy is a growing health concern, with increasing prevalence noted not just in Westernized countries but also in developing countries,” they wrote.
The researchers called for more robust studies to assess the true extent of food allergies and their impact on health services.
In the United States, doctors and researchers have an official list of eight common foods, soon to be nine, that have been shown to cause more than 90 percent of allergic reactions. Currently, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soybeans are the main culprits that cause allergic reactions, and the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 required special labeling for these foods.
In 2023, a ninth food, sesame, including any food derived from the seeds or the use of sesame seeds in their whole form, will be added to an updated version of the act with additional provisions.
Food Sensitivities and Intolerances
Today, there are whole industries catering to consumers who are gluten sensitive, lactose intolerant, dairy sensitive, or intolerant to artificial colors and artificial flavors to name only a few.
These food sensitivities and food intolerances, which some health professionals consider to be interchangeable, cause physical distress in the digestive system, not the immune system, which lessens the threat of injury.
These milder conditions still result in distressing symptoms for those affected, including the significant gas causing painful bloating, diarrhea and constipation, cramping, and nausea.
Although they aren’t typically deadly, intolerances can still wreak havoc on your well-being by causing recurring inflammation in the body, leaving the sufferer more vulnerable to other illnesses.
That inflammation can become chronic if you regularly eat a food you’re allergic to. Chronic inflammation is one of the most significant contributors to serious disease. While people may not eat foods they are allergic to, they may be routinely tempted to eat foods they can’t tolerate well and that can lead to long-term problems.
“Food intolerance is far more common than food allergy and affects up to 20 percent of the population,” according to a review article published in the journal Nutrients in 2019.
Part of the problem is we don’t know the full impact of these prevalent intolerances or what to do about them, noted the researchers.
“Complete understanding of diagnosis and management is complicated, given presentation and non-immunological mechanisms associated vary greatly. Future studies should aim to identify biomarkers to predict response to dietary therapies.”
Self-awareness and self-monitoring can go a long way to help an individual to identify food intolerances. It comes down to noticing how the body reacts to different foods.
However, Christie Hartman, a behavioral geneticist and creator of The Rogue Scientist website, writes that genetics also factor into our negative physical reactions to many different substances, including food.
“Some people can drink caffeine late at night and have zero problem sleeping, while others (me included) can’t imbibe more than a tiny amount of caffeine at any time of day without getting jittery and anxious. It makes sense that, genetically, some of us can break down certain foods better than others.
“Because of these causal differences,” adds Hartman, “those with food allergies need to avoid the problem food, since even a tiny amount can anger the immune system. Those with food sensitivities can often get away with small amounts of the problem food; the problems come when you eat more than the body can break down in a given period of time.”
Once you get some sense of which ingredients or foods cause you problems, experts agree there are strategies you can use to avoid problems. These include simply avoiding the food or resolving factors that may be contributing to the intolerance. This can include addressing any ongoing health issues such as chronic infections or a depleted gut microbiome. In some cases, you can also desensitize yourself to the food intolerance with tiny controlled doses of the food you can’t tolerate well. This process requires more guidance than this article aims to provide.
In terms of avoiding the food, you may need to become a vigilant detective on your own behalf and read food labels and checking the ingredients for problem foods. You also need to be aware that ingredient lists can include substitutions at times.
Also, when dining out, ask your server about how your meal will be prepared and let them know about food intolerances.
“The best tool we have to identify food sensitivities is a process of careful observation and experimentation,” writes Dr. Marcelo Campos, a contributor to the Harvard Health Blog.
That insight can also include eliminating foods that may be a problem to find the root cause of any reactions.
“This so-called ‘elimination diet’ is not high-tech, and it is far from perfect. A physician or nutritionist can provide guidance for undertaking an elimination diet and can help you understand limitations and avoid possible pitfalls.”