Do You Have a Food Intolerance?

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Posted: 17/12/2015 Print

Do You Have a Food Intolerance?

Guest blog by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson

You Think You Have a Food Intolerance?

You think you may have a food intolerance. You may have been feeling under the weather – tired, bloated, headachy, no energy – or maybe more specific and more debilitating symptoms.

Your GP can find nothing wrong. You may have been to a complementary practitioner who has suggested food intolerance – or even taken a high street test. Or maybe you just have this feeling that certain foods do not agree with you. So, what to do?

What to Do

Well, first, if you have not already done so, you should go to your GP and let him or her do some basic tests – just so as you are sure that there is not anything organically wrong. Then, if you believe that one or more foods may be the problem, you need to identify which foods to target.

If you have had a high street test, they will almost certainly have highlighted wheat and dairy as being an issue. This is not because there is intrinsically anything wrong with whole wheat or dairy products as foods. But….


The average person living in the US or Europe eats a prodigious amount of both refined wheat and gluten (often added as a processing aid). Breakfast cereals, toast, biscuits with coffee, pizza for lunch, pasta for supper…. This can ‘overload’ your digestive system, so reducing the amount that you eat may be a good idea anyhow.

Looking at Dairy

As regards dairy products, although milk is a highly nutritious food, we were basically designed to drink milk when we were babies but to stop doing so ­– like every other animal – when we were weaned. At which point our bodies stop producing the enzyme, lactase, which allows us to digest the sugars that are in all milks.

Dairy Free Vegan Truffles

In fact, because humans go on drinking milk even after they are weaned, most peoples’ bodies will go on making lactase, but not necessarily that efficiently. As a result many people have some difficulty metabolising the sugar in milk, suffering to a greater or lesser extent, from ‘lactose intolerance’.

Common Issues

So the most common problems are with either refined wheat products or with dairy – or both! That is not to say that there are not many other foods to which you can be, or can become intolerant. Tomatoes and citrus fruits are frequent offenders but, because food intolerance is very individual, you can react to almost anything. So, the first thing is to try to establish what foods are causing your problems.  If you have done a high street test then you can certainly start with the foods it highlighted. If not, the best way to start searching out the culprits is a food diary.

Keeping a Food Diary

For a week, or ideally two weeks, note down everything that you eat – and I mean everything, down to finishing off what was left in the baby’s bowl and licking the jam spoon…

Mini Turkey Burger

And make an accurate note of the time at which you ate it. Then in a separate ‘timed’ column, note how you felt and what symptoms you had and when they started. You will amazed how often such simple lists will reveal that, for example, your headache always seems to start half an hour after you had orange juice for breakfast.

Once you have identified foods which you think may be causing the problems, then you need to confirm that with an ‘exclusion diet’. Now this may be quite simple – just excluding citrus fruits, for example – or it may be a lot more complicated if you are trying to exclude, say, refined wheat flour.

Excluding Food Groups

If you are excluding a food group such as refined wheat flour or dairy products, you will need not only to read labels carefully but to be aware that flour is used in all kinds of products where you might not expect it.

The new regulations which came into force in 2014 make this a lot easier as all 14 of the major allergens (which include wheat and milk/dairy products) now have to be highlighted in the ingredients list. However, you will probably find that many of your regular foods will now be off the menu!

Although this may come as a bit of shock, it is good as it will mean that you now have to cook more foods from scratch – much healthier – so as to avoid the ingredients you are trying to avoid!

Beetroot and orange brownie

Although the recent expansion of the ‘freefrom’ food market – and the appearance of natural alternatives such as corn or buckwheat based breads or coconut oils, cacao powders, yogurts and ice creams – means that there is now a pretty wide range of alternative wheat-free and dairy-free foods available on most high streets.

Dietitians worry about patients doing ‘exclusion diets’ without proper medical oversight but, provided you are sensible, they are not dangerous. So, a few things to bear in mind:

  •  Only exclude one suspect food initially. If you try to exclude several, it will be harder to do and, if you do feel better, you won’t know which food was the culprit.
  • If you have been to an alternative practitioner or done a high street test and you have been told to exclude more than one food, you can certainly do so although, if you do feel better, you will need to revisit those foods to make sure that they are all implicated, and that it is not just one. There is no point in restricting your diet more than you need to.
  • Be rigorous. If you want to pinpoint the food that is causing problems you must exclude it completely – just cutting down a bit will not give you the answer you need.
  • Do NOT carry the diet on for more than three weeks absolute maximum. Two weeks should be enough to give you some idea as to whether you have got the right food.
  • If you do not feel any better after you have been on the diet for two weeks, then you will not have got the culprit food and you may then need to go through the same procedure with another suspect food.This is a pain and time consuming but it is the only really reliable way to find out whether a food is affecting your health.
  • If you do feel better, then you need to test out your conclusion by re-introducing that food again – and see whether your symptoms return. If they do, then you know that you got the right food and can continue to exclude it from your diet for a further period.

Pancakes with Banana Cinnamon and Flaxseed

However……There are other aspects of food intolerance to be borne in mind.

Unlike a true allergy, a food intolerance usually reflects a more general health issue which affects the digestion’s ability to process and metabolise food properly. This could be as a result of almost anything – a bug picked up when travelling, long periods of stress or some more immediate trauma, too much ‘high living’, overuse of antibiotics etc. etc. But the result is that the bacteria in your gut may have become compromised, you may not be producing enough of the enzymes needed to digest your food, your gut wall may have become ‘leaky’ allowing food particles and proteins to leach out into your blood stream. All of these things will mean that foods which your digestion, when in good shape, could deal with perfectly well, now cause it to struggle.

Something to Remember

So a crucial part of dealing with a food intolerance is to address general health issues at the same time. The very fact of excluding the foods that are causing your digestion to struggle will already reduce the stress under which it is labouring. But if you are able, try to address other health issues at the same time – trying to get good sleep, taking more exercise, reducing stress levels with yoga or meditation or mindfulness classes, reducing the amount you smoke or drink, maybe taking some all purpose vitamin or mineral supplements and/or probiotics etc. etc.

As your general health improves, so will your digestive health and the chances are that, in time, you may well be able to tolerate the foods that currently give you problems, at least in small amounts.

Please note..... What I have described above is pretty low key food intolerance, but is the kind that most people suffer from. But, food intolerance can be a great deal more serious and, in really extreme cases can result in sufferers’ diets being reduced to only a handful of foods and, occasionally, to no foods at all.

For more on serious or total food intolerance see this section of the FoodsMatter website and, in particular, the introductory article by John Scott, himself a total intolerance sufferer, here.


Michelle is editor of FoodsMatter Magazine

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