Imagine walking through the grocery store, and all of a sudden your body has a poor reaction to something you’d eaten hours earlier. Whether it’s cramps, gas or something more serious, it’s miserable. Although it’s a situation everyone has likely experienced, what if it was a regular occurrence you didn’t know the cause of or how to keep it from happening again? This is a familiar scenario for those suffering from food intolerances, which affect up to 20% of the population, according to the National
Institutes of Health.
“It’s important for people to understand their body’s reaction to foods and their environment,” says Julia Zumpano, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. “If you don’t feel well every time you eat or drink (fill in the blank), don’t ignore that feeling.”
Understanding Food Intolerances
When it comes to analyzing how our bodies react to certain foods, it’s important to understand the difference between food allergies and food intolerances. The former is an immune system response.
“Your body attacks the food as if it were an enemy, which causes an immediate immune response and allergic reaction, such as hives, difficulty breathing or swallowing and swelling of the lips, tongue or throat,” Zumpano says. “A food intolerance does not cause an allergic reaction, but more of a disruption. It is not life threatening. Symptoms may include gas, bloating, skin rash, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, brain fog and fatigue.”
Food allergies also typically manifest in early childhood, while food intolerances can develop over time. For example, babies are very unlikely to be lactose intolerant, explains Jennifer Kerner, a clinical dietitian at University Hospitals Digestive Health Institute. As people age, their bodies may produce less enzymes that help digest lactose.
“Intolerances are very dose dependent,” she says. “With allergies, any amount can bother the person.”
Another common food intolerance, gluten, is also tricky. It’s often confused with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder. Like a food allergy, consuming even a small amount of gluten is dangerous for those with celiac disease.
“When someone with celiac disease eats something with gluten, it attacks their own gastrointestinal tract. They can feel quite miserable as a result of that,” Kerner says, adding that those who test negative for the disease but cannot tolerate it are described as having a non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
So how do you go about diagnosing and addressing a possible food sensitivity? Dr. Reema Gulati, mends journaling, recognition and elimination. First, keep a record of the symptoms you are concerned about for several weeks. Once you figure out the culprits, eliminate those one by one.
“What really works here is elimination,” she says. “Then, work with a nutritionist to incorporate proper substitutions to make up for that lost food group or food item so that your diet remains balanced.”
Zumpano notes that it takes discipline to avoid certain foods and then slowly add them back into your diet while documenting symptoms and reactions. But there are no shortcuts. Zumpano, Kerner and Gulati all advise against mail order tests that claim to reveal food intolerances.
“I have numerous examples where people got this type of testing done and removed foods from their diet. It made their diets restrictive, and they did not feel better afterward because these tests have no merit or ground,” Gulati says. “We shouldn’t go after food sensitivities like a wild goose chase. It should be based off of careful observations, journaling and working to eliminate those foods with the help of a doctor or
Possible Problem Foods
When trying to discover what foods might be affecting your body in a negative way, it doesn’t come down to specific foods but rather food categories. Here, we highlight five.
Lactose: Those with this type of intolerance have difficulty breaking down lactose, the main sugar found in milk. “Because you are deficient in these enzymes, they pass undigested into your colon,” says Dr. Reema Gulati, pediatric gastroenterologist at MetroHealth, noting that treatment options include limiting foods that have lactose (dairy products including cheese, ice cream and yogurt) or taking supplements that provide the necessary enzymes to digest lactose.
Fructose: “This includes fruits that have high sugar levels or foods that include high fructose corn syrup and highly refined sugary foods,” Dr. Gulati notes.
Alcohol: An intolerance occurs when a person’s body does not have the necessary enzymes to break down the toxins found in alcohol, says Jennifer Kerner, a clinical dietitian at University Hospitals Digestive Health Institute, adding that symptoms may include flushing and bright pink cheeks.
FODMAP: “These are different types of carbohydrates that can ferment in the gut,” Kerner says. They can cause gas, bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea. A wide range of foods include high FODMAP content — sorbitol, mannitol, fructose and lactose, among others. Therefore, Kerner recommends those who are concerned they may have this type of intolerance work with a dietitian who has experience helping those with FODMAP intolerances.
Sulfites: “Sulfites are additives put into foods that contain sulfur,” Kerner says. Those who have a sulfite sensitivity should check labels and avoid foods and drinks that contain sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, sodium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite.