Got a belly ache? A food intolerance may be the culprit

Digestive problems can range from mildly annoying to incredibly uncomfortable – and they are often caused by food intolerances.

For some people, it’s bloating. For others, it’s a headache or hives.

Food intolerances can cause many and various symptoms.

And they’re common. A UK study showed food intolerance affects 15-20 per cent of the population.

But before you jump to the conclusion your symptoms are being caused by a food intolerance, it’s a good idea to get an expert opinion.

“Rather than self-diagnosing a food intolerance and deciding to cut something out of your diet, it’s really important to seek medical advice and work towards getting an official diagnosis,” dietitian Milly Smith says.

“For starters, you don’t want to eliminate a core food group unnecessarily, which could cause nutritional deficiencies.

“It’s also important to make sure you haven’t missed a diagnosis of another condition that causes similar symptoms but needs to be treated quite differently.”

Difference between food intolerance and allergy

Be aware you might have a food allergy and not a food intolerance – they’re two different things.

A food allergy is an immune system response where the body mistakes a protein in a food as harmful and releases antibodies to fight it.

A food intolerance is a digestive system response and occurs when someone isn’t able to properly digest or break down the food or when the food irritates the digestive system.

One big difference is that, with the exception of a reaction to one of two food preservatives, food intolerances don’t cause anaphylaxis, the severe allergic reactions that can be life threatening.

“Symptoms of food intolerances can be quite broad but they’re often digestive related, causing things like bloating or a change in bowel motions,” Milly says.

Food intolerance can also cause rashes and hives, headaches, wheezing and a runny nose and just generally feeling a bit under the weather.

How to diagnose a food intolerance

Unfortunately, unlike food allergies, fail-safe clinical tests to diagnose food intolerances are lacking.

Breath tests designed to help pinpoint a lactose or fructose intolerance are available, but results need to be interpreted carefully.

It’s also really important to be wary of advertised testing methods for food intolerances that lack credible evidence.

“The challenging thing with food intolerances is it can be quite difficult to work out which food is causing the problem,” Milly says.

As a first step she recommends seeing your GP to rule out other causes.

“With that done, we’d then look at doing a strict elimination diet, which removes the higher-risk foods, with the goal being to have a few symptom-free weeks before gradually reintroducing those foods to try to identify which you might be intolerant to.”

How are food intolerances treated?

Just like a food allergy, the main treatment for a food intolerance once it’s been diagnosed is avoiding that food.

However, the approach is slightly different.

“Unlike a food allergy, where it’s vital to eliminate even the smallest amount of the food in question to prevent symptoms, people living with an intolerance can often tolerate a certain amount of the food before symptoms occur,” Milly explains.

“So once you’ve identified which food or foods you’re intolerant to, it’s a matter of working out what your threshold is so you can hopefully still eat and enjoy a certain amount of it, rather than having to remove it from your diet completely.”

Common food intolerances

A wide variety of foods and ingredients can trigger reactions, including food additives, eggs and even citrus fruits.

Below are three of the most commonly reported food intolerances.

Lactose intolerance

This occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough lactase, a gut enzyme that’s required to break down lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products.

Symptoms are typically digestive related, and most people who are lactose intolerant can and should continue to enjoy dairy foods, given some contain no or very little lactose.

Wheat intolerance

This causes gastrointestinal symptoms when wheat-containing foods are eaten and where coeliac disease has been ruled out.

Research shows it may be the gluten or a wheat-based protein called amylase trypsin inhibitors or the fructans in wheat that people react to.

It’s also important to note that while wheat accounts for most fructans in most people’s diets, fructans are also present in many other foods, such as garlic, bananas, asparagus and kidney beans, and other grains like spelt, rye and barley.

FODMAP intolerance

FODMAPs are a group of sugars that are not completely digested or absorbed in our intestines.

They are found in a wide variety of healthy foods.

Different foods contain different FODMAPs and while they’re an important food source for good gut bacteria, they trigger symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Written by Karen Fittall.