Many of us experience signs of food intolerance from time to time. For some, the discomfort only lasts for a while while others have to eliminate discomfort-causing foods permanently. But how do you know whether you are intolerant to a specific food item or, more seriously, allergic to it?
Clinical dietician Bernice Venter explains that food allergies occur when the body mistakes an ingredient in food as harmful. Antibodies will then gear up and fight against it, causing a reaction.
Venter helps us better understand how to spot an allergy and when to see a doctor.
What exactly is food intolerance?
Food intolerance is a reaction or immune reaction to certain foods where your body is building up inflammation to alert your immune system that there’s a foreign object in in the body.
It all comes down to gut integrity (reducing gut inflammation), so that any food that you’re taking in can be absorbed as nutrients. In other words, it won’t leak through and cause more of the immune reaction which causes more food intolerance symptoms.
When people start asking, “Is it a food intolerance?” is usually when they have checked whether they have had food allergies, and nothing has come up when they constantly have inflammatory symptoms like gut problems and bloatedness.
People who have inflammatory issues like arthritis or migraines that won’t go away will know it’s typically a food type that is just causing this unnecessary inflammation in the body.
How does food intolerance differ from food allergies?
Allergies usually only occur with certain foods, including soya, wheat, and shellfish. With allergies, your body will typically show a reaction within two hours. It is immediate and sometimes severe and even deadly. You’ll notice that you can’t breathe, your tongue will swell up, and you will need immediate medical attention.
On the other hand, food intolerance will first alert your immune system and it will build up inflammation which can take up to 72 hours.
Let’s say you are intolerant to peas, and only three days later you have a bit of bloating, cramps or gassiness. By that time it is so difficult to pinpoint what you ate, and you are wondering whether it was the morning’s breakfast or the peas from three days ago. That is where the food intolerance test comes in to help you identify which foods you badly react too.
Can kids get tested for food intolerance?
Yes. We do suggest that you only test children older than two to make sure they’ve got a varied early diet.
How does a food intolerance test work?
Immunoglobin G testing (IgG) is very new in South Africa. In the past, we have done elimination diets but that takes a while, and sometimes people eliminate foods that they do not even have to. An IgG test just help you get there faster.
The other thing is that we often eliminate just the culprits that we think about, including gluten and cow’s milk. Often, these are not the items you should be worried about.
Most food intolerance tests look at 222 foods – from nuts and vegetables to gelatine and cocoa. So, testing really looks at the broad picture of many foods that can give you a negative reaction.
Rapid tests are available, often with a simple finger prick that can be done at your desk. If you’re doing the full spectrum test, the most accurate way is to send your sample off to a lab to determine how many antibodies you built up against certain foods.
So, what happens when I am food intolerant?
The beauty of food intolerance is that you don’t have to give up the specific food. However, most people with food allergies would probably need to avoid those foods for quite a long time. In food intolerance, foods that come up with a high count of antibodies are eliminated for three months.
The point is to reduce your exposure to the food and to work on gut repair. You work on gut repair with a little bit of fibre, probiotics and a few other supplements and a bit of glutamine to aid repair. After three months you can start reintroducing the foods that you have eliminated to see how your body reacts. Of course, you need to listen to your body and see how you react to certain foods once it has been reintroduced.