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Food intolerance – what are the symptoms?

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Food intolerance and food allergy are often mistaken for the same thing. However food intolerance is much more common.

A food allergy is when someone cannot tolerate even a small amount of the offending food without suffering symptoms which often makes it easier to diagnose. A food allergy is an abnormal immune system response whereby antibodies are made to fight off the food. It is due to this defined response that allergies can be diagnosed with relative ease in comparison with food intolerance.

Food tolerance can present a number of hours later as the food works through your digestive system and the symptoms can last for hours or even into the next day. You could be suffering similar symptoms to an allergy however without the production of antibodies.

Symptoms of food intolerance can be general – this is another reason it’s hard to diagnose – and they can include fatigue, skin symptoms such as eczema, rashes and other chronic conditions. You may also suffer gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, and irritable bowel.

Woman with food intolerance

What causes food intolerance?

There are a number of reasons for food intolerance including (but not exclusive to) enzyme defects, pharmacological reasons or even additives. If you have an enzyme defect this means your body is either missing or is in short supply of the particular enzyme that breaks down the offending food.

If your intolerance is pharmacological it means there is a naturally occurring substance in the food that causes the reaction, for example caffeine in tea and coffee or amines in certain cheeses.

Some people are simply sensitive to the artificial additives used in colouring and preserving our food.

When intolerances are broken down into these kinds of explanations, it’s easy to see how people are intolerant to certain groups of food rather than one food in particular as is often the case with allergies.

Recognising a food intolerance

If you or someone in your family is regularly poorly after eating then it is of course advisable to seek medical advice – especially in the case of an immediate and severe reaction.

If the symptoms seem to indicate an intolerance rather than an allergy then your doctor may recommend keeping a food diary. This is to help identify patterns in the symptoms and narrow down what could be causing them. It can be difficult to identify when the symptoms begin and end when the offending food is eaten on a regular basis e.g. if you have cheese sandwiches every day for lunch, but are unknowingly intolerant to the cheese, Monday’s symptoms may run into Tuesdays and so on, making them on going and chronic in nature.

Whilst the food diary may not point out the exact cause, it gives your doctor or dietician a starting point with which to start an exclusion and reintroduction diet. By eliminating and reintroducing certain foods (under the clear guidance of your doctor or dietician) connections can be made between the food and the subsequent reaction.

If your child has an intolerance

This sounds like an obvious thing but it’s essential that everyone who cares for your child, from nursery to the grandparents, is absolutely clear on what they can and cannot eat.

child with stomach ache

There are thankfully lots of alternatives available in supermarkets if you or your little one has an intolerance. In some cases, these can be obtained by prescription if an official diagnosis is made (usually in the case of coeliac disease or lactose intolerance). It’s also a great idea to look online for alternative versions of your favourite recipes – more often than not, someone somewhere has come up with one!

Food intolerance can make it trickier, but not impossible to eat out. If requested, a restaurant should be able to tell you what has gone into their food. And if you’re going to a children’s party where you know your little one may not be able to eat some of the sweets or cake due to an intolerance then take your own alternative so they won’t feel left out.






About Celyn Parry

About Celyn Parry

Celyn Parry has 12 years experience working with a leading children’s retailer but is now focusing on her passion for writing. With many years spent on the shop floor listening to parents, she prides herself on creating down to earth articles with a dash of humour and personal insight. As Step-Mum to adorable chatterbox Max, it’s a bit of a juggling act but it certainly keeps things interesting!

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