If you regularly experience indigestion, gas, nausea, stomach pain, or just overall crummy feelings and don’t know why, you may have a food sensitivity or intolerance.
Many people have gone their entire lives without diagnosing these problems, but due to increased awareness, these silent sufferers are finally getting the help they need to feel their best.
That help starts here, with everything you need to know about food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances and how to determine which foods are causing your symptoms.
What Is a Food Allergy?
You’ve probably heard the term “food allergy.” A food allergy is your immune system’s response to a food that you’re allergic too, and tends to be much more severe than food intolerances and sensitivities. Symptoms are usually immediate and can include itchy or tingly lips, a swollen throat, and hives and, in severe cases, anaphylaxis with loss of consciousness and low blood pressure.
If you think you might have a food intolerance or sensitivity, your first step is to make sure it’s not actually a food allergy. Schedule an appointment with an allergist as soon as possible if this is the case.
Food Sensitivity vs. Food Intolerance
If you don’t have an allergy but are reacting negatively to certain foods, you might have either a food intolerance or a food sensitivity.
Food sensitivities are often called delayed food allergies because they involve immune responses and symptoms can take between 45 minutes to several days to appear. While they may be due to high levels of IgG class antibodies that react to certain foods, food sensitivities involve complex physiological mechanisms and are still poorly understood.
Symptoms of a food sensitivity may include:
- Runny nose
- Bloated stomach
- Joint pain
Because of their delayed response and complex nature, many food sensitivities are never diagnosed, despite the fact that they affect between 20 and 30 percent of the population. Common food sensitivities include peanut and gluten sensitivities.
Although food intolerances cause symptoms that are similar to those of food sensitivities, they involve a digestive response rather than an immune response. People with food intolerances lack the enzyme necessary to break down a particular food, so that food is not digested properly and instead ferments inside the gastrointestinal tract.
[Related: A Guide to Proper Nutrition After 50]
Unlike food allergies, which can affect people if they are exposed to even a trace amount of the allergen, food intolerances may not affect people unless they consume large amounts of the food.
Symptoms of a food intolerance may include:
- Stomach pains or cramps
- Nervousness or irritability
The most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance, which is caused by a person’s lack of the enzyme that breaks down the sugars found in milk.
How to Determine if You Have a Food Sensitivity or Intolerance
Whether you have a food sensitivity or intolerance, the solution is to stop eating the problem foods. Determining what those foods are isn’t always easy, but an elimination diet plan will help.
Track Everything You Eat
To determine which foods are making you feel bad, start tracking everything you eat (and when you eat it) in a journal or “food diary.” Record any symptoms you experience as well, making sure to note when they start.
After you’ve tracked your diet for a week or two, you can start looking for repeating patterns. For example, if you always get a stomach ache after consuming a certain kind of food, that food could be the culprit. Keep in mind that symptoms of food sensitivities can take several days to appear, so you shouldn’t look at immediate reactions alone.
Be as detailed as possible when recording what you have eaten. Rather than list the name of a product, check the label and list its ingredients. And when eating out, ask your server about specific ingredients and what the chef uses to cook the foods.
Eliminate Problem Foods
After you have a list of foods that you think might be problematic for you, remove them from your diet. Eat only foods that you are certain don’t bother you for the coming two weeks.
[Related: Choosing the Right Foods After Age 50]
Waiting two full weeks is important to allow your body to get any potential problem foods out of its system and adjust to your new diet. You may experience some headaches or fatigue during the first few days of this adjustment period. Your body will be reducing inflammation, and water tends to go with it, so be sure to drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated.
If your food diary doesn’t reveal any correlations between certain foods and symptoms, consider just eliminating common food allergens, such as:
- Tree nuts
Of course, eliminating all of these food groups would greatly restrict what you can eat, so try to be as thorough as possible when determining what to get rid of.
For the most accurate results, you’ll also want to cut out alcohol, caffeine, and cigarettes. All three have an impact on the integrity of your gastrointestinal tract, so if you’re using them, you won’t be able to accurately tell how foods are affecting you when you add them back in during the next step.
Add Foods Back in One at a Time
Choose one of the foods that you eliminated and begin to eat it again. If you don’t experience any symptoms after two to three days, you can assume that you have no sensitivity or intolerance to it and move on to the next food.
When you find that adding a food does cause you symptoms within those three days, eliminate it for good. (You’ve found a problem food!) Wait three more days before adding in another food to give your immune system time to return to normal.
Find Alternatives to Problem Foods
This is important for a couple of reasons: first, so that you don’t develop a nutrient deficiency; and second, so that you don’t have to deprive yourself of your favorite foods forever.
For example, if you have to eliminate dairy from your diet, you’ll also be eliminating the vitamin D, protein, and calcium that it contains. Find other sources of these nutrients so that your long-term health doesn’t suffer.
[Related: Guide to Supplements After Age 50]
And if you’ve found that one of your favorite foods causes you symptoms, don’t despair — you might still be able to enjoy it. Cut it out for a few months to get it completely out of your immune system, and then try eating it again, but in moderation and less frequently.
You can also try different versions of the problem food to see if they affect you differently. For example, if wheat has caused you problems in the past, try a grain that you don’t usually eat.
Visit a Dietitian
The above steps may result in a quick and easy solution that leaves you feeling much better than before. However, sometimes more investigation is necessary to find out what is causing your symptoms.
If this elimination diet doesn’t work for you, visit a dietitian. They can perform tests or analysis to determine if you do, indeed, have a food sensitivity or intolerance, which foods are affecting you, and how you can update your diet to ensure proper nutrition.
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