No we’re not talking patience levels here! Food intolerances are becoming an increasingly prevalent condition around the world. We find out more.
Have you ever eaten a meal and experienced bloating, cramps, or flatulence soon after? Most people would blame it on the fact that they ate unhealthy, or are probably just too full from the meal, but these symptoms are likely related to a food you are intolerant to.
A food intolerance essentially triggers a delayed allergic reaction to a particular type of food. When you are intolerant to something, it means your body has trouble digesting it, and the inability of breaking down these proteins, results in unpleasant side effects.
In recent years, it appears to have become quite fashionable to go gluten-free or dairy-free, but while it could just be buying into a fad for some, it is a real health issue for many people. Over the last few years, food intolerances have been on the rise, and this is particularly due to the changes in eating habits, lifestyle activities, and the way our bodies have changed over generations. Our diets now include more processed and industrially manufactured foods, many of which contain high amounts of gluten, soy, dairy, fructose and modified foods, compared to our ancestors’ diets, which results in us absorbing a lot of toxins, often unknowingly. Those of us who don’t look at labels while shopping, might not even realise how much of it we consume. Modern lifestyles, with increased stress levels, can also contribute to the development of an intolerance, while in some cases, it could just be a matter of eating something in excess over a length of time, due to which the body simply protests against digesting it. “Nowadays, people exhaust their bodies with antibiotics and pain-killers, and this weakens the digestive system as well,” says Dr M. Jay Al Khatib, Laboratory Director at York Diagnostics Laboratory.
It is also thanks to growing awareness, that more people are now getting diagnosed and treated for the condition – Dr. Jay does approximately 50-100 intolerance tests in a month, and tells us that the number has increased by as much as 40 per cent in the last two years.
WHAT IS AN INTOLERANCE?
A food allergy isn’t the same as a food intolerance – although it is common to confuse the two. The main difference between them is in the fact that a food allergy is related to your immune system, while a food intolerance is related to your digestive system. “When you're allergic to something, your immune system mis-identifies it as dangerous and sends out antibodies to fight off its proteins. You suffer allergic symptoms as a result of the battle between the allergen and the immune system,” explains Lily Mueller, Nutrition Coach at Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre. Food intolerances, on the other hand, are a chemical reaction to a certain type of food. A person who is allergic to a particular food can’t and should not have even a trace of the culprit food, as it triggers a reaction instantly. On the other hand, a person who is intolerant to a food can occasionally have a small portion of it, as in some cases, the body can handle it in certain amounts. Because the effects of an intolerance are usually relatively mild, people can go through their entire lives suffering from one, but accepting the condition without knowing what causes it. “Also, a food intolerance isn’t usually a permanent condition,” adds Dr Jay. Irritable bowel syndrome and Chrohn’s disease are some of the main medical conditions associated with food intolerances, but there are multiple other symptoms as well. “Those allergic to a food may experience hives, rashes, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, swelling, coughing and sneezing, while those intolerant to food may simply experience bloating, diarrhoea, vomiting, gas, heartburn, headaches and irritability, among other symptoms,” says Lily. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t damaging to health. Food intolerance symptoms aren’t only confined to stomach or digestive issues, and also include problems ranging from lack of concentration, nasal congestion, joint pain, back ache, fatigue, depression and skin rashes.
Dr Jay tells us that a food intolerance can also lead to mood swings, hypertension and a change in behaviour – particularly in children. “I did a test on an autistic child, and his behaviour improved tremendously when he eliminated the food he was intolerant to. We also did a test on a child who had been sent home from school for bad conduct, and found out that he was intolerant to meat – which he had eaten that day. After two weeks, the parents received a call from the teacher, notifying them about the incredible change they saw in the child after they cut meat out from his diet,” he says. If you suspect you might have an intolerance, then there are various ways to go about testing for it. “Give your body the wrong food, and it will put you out of sync. So it’s best to find out what exactly isn’t working for your body,” says Dr Jay.
The self-testing route is the most economical way as you eliminate foods you think you might be intolerant to. However, you might not always get accurate results, since symptoms can occur 24 to 48 hours after eating the culprit food – which makes it hard to identify what caused the reaction. Lily suggests cutting out dairy, wheat and/or gluten for a few days, as they are the most prevalent intolerance around, to notice if there is a difference.
If you constantly suffer from symptoms like migraines, constipation, diarrhoea and bloating, Dr Jay recommends doing a blood test – which, while expensive, is a precise way of diagnosing the condition, and analyses hundreds of foods to detect what the intolerances are for. Applied kinesiology test (developed in the US in 1964) is another test which works on the theory that food sensitivity occurs when your body’s energy fields react with particular foods, and diagnosis is done with muscle testing. Other methods include the Vega test (done with a machine), breath test, biopsy (a sample of the tissue is taken from the intestine to look for matters of gluten), and stool test for fructose and gluten intolerances.
You have probably noticed that many packaging labels now indicate that a particular product has gluten, soy or dairy in it, as do restaurant menus. Supermarkets here are increasingly starting to cater to 'free-from’ requirements, with many of them offering dedicated aisles for such intolerance-friendly products.There are a number of intolerances from gluten and dairy, to fruit, vegetables, and everything in between, like soy, MSG and tryamine-foods (beer, wine, fermented cheese, sausage, chocolate, to name a few), to check for. But the most common ones are those that are triggered by foods that we consume, in different forms, the most. These are:
Gluten can be found in barley (malt, malt vinegar), rye, wheat, triticale (a cross between wheat and rye), bulghur, cereal, spelt, durum, and in hidden forms in various foods like salad dressings, cookies, cakes, pasta, processed meats and gravies, and even things like soy sauce. Those who are intolerant to it have a hard time absorbing nutrients and must eat gluten-free foods to avoid symptoms like bloating, abdominal discomfort, constipation, diarrhoea, headaches, severe acne, fatigue and bone or joint pain. Rice (white and brown), corn, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, teff and soy are great alternatives for those who are sensitive to gluten.
Lactose is a sugar found in dairy products such as milk, ice cream and cheese, salad dressings, certain candy, breads and baked goods. Those who are sensitive to lactose usually have little or no lactase (an enzyme) in the intestines, and so the indigested lactose travels through the digestive tract to the colon, where it ferments in the lower intestine and causes various symptoms. Those who are lactose intolerant tend to suffer from symptoms like flatulence, bloating, diarrhoea, or painful cramps. Lactose-free milks, rice, hemp, oat, nut and soy milk are all great alternatives.
There’s a difference between dairy and lactose intolerance – dairy refers to milk that comes from cows and other mammals and foods made with that milk, while lactose is simply a sugar found in certain dairy products. So, a dairy product can be processed to make it lactose-free, but a product that is lactose-free isn’t always necessarily dairy-free. Those sensitive to dairy (cow’s milk, cheese, butter) experience similar symptoms to those who are lactose intolerant. Lily suggests trying rice, almond, soy, oats, camel, goat’s, sheep or coconut milk, if you are intolerant to cow’s milk. Non-dairy coconut yoghurt, goat’s and sheep cheese, and camel cheese could also be viable alternatives in some cases.
A number of baked goods like pastries, buns, bread, rolls, muffins, and various other bakes contain yeast. Beer, wine, cider, stock cubes and certain pickles and mayonnaise are also on the list. Those intolerant to yeast may suffer from anxiety, bladder infections, abdominal bloating, dizziness, fatigue, cravings for sugar, constipation, respiratory problems and weight gain. Baking soda and lemon, buttermilk and yoghurt can be used as a replacement for yeast.
Soy beans are broken down into a powder form and used in everything from oils to additives to add protein and flavour to packaged foods. You can find soy in granola, chocolate spreads, biscuits, and many other foods. Those who are intolerant to soy have trouble breaking down the protein and sugar in foods that contain it. Some of the symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, cramps and nausea. Rice and almond milk work as a great alternative to soy milk, and so does ricotta cheese and sour cream in place of silken tofu. Coconut aminos can be used as a substitute for soy sauce in dishes.
Some people are intolerant to just the egg white or egg yolk, while some to both. The intolerance occurs when the body finds it hard to digest the proteins in an egg. Flatulence, diarrhoea, dry skin and abdominal pain are some of the symptoms that you may experience. Those who are intolerant to chicken eggs can try duck eggs or quail eggs, while tofu can also be used as an alternative to egg in some cases.
Fructose is a sugar found naturally in fruits, juices, honey, corn syrup, and a few vegetables. People who have fructose intolerance should avoid high-fructose foods like apples, watermelon, grapes, peas, and zucchini, to name a few, or they will experience gas, abdominal pain and diarrhoea, since the digestive system doesn’t absorb fructose properly. Carrots, avocados, green beans and strawberries are good low fructose foods, for those who can have it in small doses.
This occurs when the body finds it hard to digest and process the proteins in nuts. Common symptoms include stomach pain, gas, and bloating, and it often takes place after several hours or in some case, after days of eating nuts. People are usually intolerant to certain nuts rather than all of them, so cutting out specific nuts is easy. You can also swap nut-butters for a pumpkin or sunflower seed butter.
THE WAY FORWARD
Having a food intolerance doesn’t mean you have to forego the food for the rest of your life. Dr Jay tells us that you can re-introduce the food gradually, after refraining from it stringently for about six months – once the body has healed. It might be hard adapting to new eating habits, but you will notice a change in the body’s functioning when you eliminate these foods from your diet. You can eat certain foods from time to time (especially if they are borderline and you aren’t highly intolerant to it) if you crave it, but it’s best to avoid even those, to see successful results.
Managing the condition might be tough for some, especially if the food that they have been diagnosed as intolerant to ,was part of their daily diet. However, with plenty more options now available for people with intolerances, compared to even a few years back – both when it comes to food shopping and eating out – it is not impossible. All it takes is a committing to eating more consciously, reading labels carefully when shopping for groceries, looking for healthier, more suitable alternatives, and gradually, taking care of your intolerances will become an integral part of life.
The best thing about an intolerance is, it’s usually OK to cheat every now and then. If you abide by the dietary restrictions the rest of the time, you’ll find the health benefits you enjoy will more than make it worth your while.
Take the test
The YORKTEST England, conducted at the York Diagnostics Laboratories in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, which specialises in intolerance-testing, is a blood test that can be done in just a few minutes. You can either send in a sample from home by doing a tiny pin-prick of blood, or go into the clinic and meet with doctor for a consultation before getting the test done. Results are sent via email within 48 hours with a comprehensive list detailing what you need to avoid, eat moderately (borderline), and can still continue eating (have no reaction to). The foods are rated on a grade from +1 to +4 – with four being the highest level of intolerance. The test is done for 92 foods, including grains, dairy, meat, fish and seafood, vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, herbs, seeds, tea, and yeast. All patients receive follow-up advice from the resident doctor who then specifies how to go about managing your intolerances. • Dhs1,900 per person. Call 04-4327470.
Saurav Sinha*, 36, is a Dubai-based marketing professional who discovered a drastic change in his health after testing for intolerances at the Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre:
I used to suffer from bloating, acid reflux and other digestion issues on a regular basis, and also got frequent headaches, had a chronic cough and nasal congestion, as well as a constant sense of lethargy. I wasn’t sure what to expect when it was suggested I get a food intolerance test done, and to be honest, didn’t think anything would come of it – it was just another diet fad as far as I was concerned. I went along to do the test, which was pretty quick and painless, but it was when I got my result a week later that I got the shock of my life. I was intolerant to 39 different foods! The centre’s Medical Director, Dr Maria, sat me down and talked me through the list, explained the reality of my situation, and gave me advice on what sort of dietary changes I needed to make. The list included most of my favourite things, including gluten (which was a Level 4 intolerance – can’t touch the thing for a year), ruling out bread, pasta and so on; dairy, which means all milk products, including my all-time favourite, cheese; as well as eggs. Other intolerances, on a lower level, included chickpeas, lentils, chicken, all foods that I enjoy eating, and a few things I didn’t care about too much, such as nori.
I thought, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’, so decided to whole-heartedly make a lifestyle change and see how it went. After a detailed consultation with the nutritionist at the centre, who gave me lots of practical suggestions on what changes I could make to my diet, as well as prescribed a range of herbal medications and supplements to heal my gut simultaneously, I got started on my new regime. I’ve stuck to it more or less strictly ever since, except for a few days in between when I was travelling. I swapped gluten and dairy products for risk-free alternatives – I’ve even started enjoying soy milk now! – and stopped eating most of the others on my list, particularly those Level 3 or higher. It wasn’t easy at first, or cheap either – a lot of intolerance-friendly foods are significantly more expensive than regular ones – as I had to go shopping in different places, and try out various products and brands before I worked out what I liked and what I didn’t, but I got used to it with time. The foods I had a lower level of intolerance to, such as lentils or chicken, I reduced my intake of, but didn’t cut out completely. I also started including more fruit and vegetables in my diet to ensure my nutritional intake stays balanced.
The results, in short, were remarkable. Within days, my bloating reduced, to make my stomach flat again – and people even noticed and commented on how much better I was looking. My headaches have disappeared, and I feel lighter, more energised, and most importantly, happier and less irritable than I have in a long time. I do miss eating some of my favourite dishes, but after a few months, I will probably start eating them again, but I know now to enjoy them in moderation, and look after my health in the process.
• The Food Intolerance test at Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre costs Dhs2,350, follow-up consultation is Dhs175. Additional nutritional consultations are Dhs350 each. Call 04-3351200.