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Allergy or intolerance?

There is often confusion between food allergies and intolerances. Rude Health magazine investigates

Food intolerances

“Food intolerances, commonly known as food sensitivity, are certain foods that can irritate our bodies,” says Erin Dolan, a certified health coach who works with the Aloe Tree in Ennistymon, Co Clare. “It’s said that around 20% of people suffer from food intolerances. They do not tend to be severe, but they can leave us feeling uncomfortable after we eat.”

When you have a food intolerance your body is unable to digest a particular ingredient in food. An example is lactose intolerance (lactose is the sugar naturally contained in milk and dairy foods). Intolerant individuals do not have enough lactase in their body, the enzyme which hydrolyses lactose, so they can suffer intestinal disorders when they drink milk or eat dairy foods.

Food allergies

“Food allergies are those foods that trigger a negative response in the body and can cause allergic reactions such as swelling, rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea and digestive issues,” says Erin Dolan. “These type of reactions are much more serious than food intolerances. The most common problem foods are dairy, peanuts, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios and macadamia nuts), corn, eggs, gluten (in wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt and kamut), shellfish and soy.”

The severity of symptoms also varies, ranging from mild redness, as in the case of a sulphite allergy, to a severe allergic response such as anaphylactic shock. Food allergies are more common in children than in adults, some of them diminishing or even disappearing with age.

Identifying the problem

“There are a few ways to find out if you have food intolerance or allergies,” says Erin Dolan. “One way to learn if foods are causing symptoms or impacting your body is to implement an elimination diet where you cut out foods that may be causing problems for at least two weeks and then add in one food group at a time every three days over the next two to three weeks. By journaling your food intake every day you can see if foods are causing any symptoms of sensitivities or allergies in the body.

“Other ways to identify food intolerance or allergies are by using a food reaction test via a blood prick or hair sample. This can be done through certain wellness practitioners or clinics or now even with an at-home test. These tests will reveal a list of food triggers. Because coeliac is an autoimmune disease and sometimes harder to identify, it's best to use accurate testing through your doctor or wellness practitioner.”

Helping yourself

“Once you have established your food triggers, you can start to improve your diet by avoiding certain foods and to distinguish these foods when reading food labels,” says Erin Dolan. “It may be good to also incorporate supplements that will help the body to recover from any damage, such as probiotics or gut-friendly foods. In order to customise your diet or get support in making adjustments to your food intake, it's best to work with a dietitian or nutritionist so that they can plan food alternatives, meal planning and other beneficial foods.”

If you are missing certain digestive enzymes you may be intolerant to a number of foods, and bitters can help. The bitter taste of these drinks can send a signal to the digestive system to produce the enzymes and help you digest foods. You can also take herbs that are good for the digestive system such as peppermint.

Herbs that are good for healing the gut include aloe vera, horsetail, slippery elm, psyllium husks, silica and the amino acid glutamine.

Choosing alternatives

“Fortunately, there are a lot of good alternatives for those with food intolerances,” says Erin Dolan. “However, some packaged ‘free food' items contain a long list of ingredients with extra additives that may also be a food trigger. For gluten-free alternatives, I suggest looking at other whole grains such as millet, buckwheat, brown rice or quinoa – if you love pasta consider brown rice pasta. There are a number of dairy-free milks from rice milk to coconut milk, but be sure to look at the ingredients. I prefer oat milk because it’s creamy, naturally sweet and nutritious.”

Gluten-free alternatives

  • Polenta
  • Rice
  • Quinoa and amaranth
  • GF soy sauce
  • GF stock powder, baking powder
  • Corn flour
  • Brown rice flour
  • Chickpea flour (besan)
  • Maize flour
  • Potato flour for bread
  • Buckwheat, millet, teff, quinoa and soya

Dairy-free alternatives

  • Cheese, yogurts, milks, cream, margarine and spread
  • Coconut, almond, hazelnut, rice and legume dairy products

Egg alternatives

  • Aquafaba – the liquid from tinned chickpeas
  • Chia seeds
  • Apple puree

Check with your professional healthcare practitioner before you start any new diet, especially if you have medical issues.

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