Food Allergy or Intolerance? The food is not the issue!
Have you or someone you know been affected by food intolerance? Are you currently eliminating a food group? Are you stuck on a restrictive diet for symptom relief?
As a Nutritionist who specialises in the management of food intolerance, and a life-long sufferer of digestive issues, I understand.
First, let me say that I am pleased with the increased awareness of these conditions, which is helping thousands of Australians to live healthier lives free of pain.
However, there seems to be some great misconceptions and misuse of recognised treatments.
I see an increasing number of people who are following restrictive diets for symptom relief – with no corrective treatment.
It seems popular belief that food is the cause of the intolerance and that the condition of food intolerance is a life-sentence – neither could be further from the truth.
Yes, you can quote me in saying, the food is not the issue! The intolerance is just a symptom and removing the food is simply symptom relief!
Unfortunately, eliminating foods without properly addressing the issue may also lead to further food reactions. This is what leads to what I call substitution syndrome.
Substitution syndrome is where we simply swap food 1 for food 2, until we’re also intolerant to food 2, now we replace foods 1+2 with food 3, when we become intolerant to food 3 we substitute with food 4 – and so the list of ‘problem foods’ goes on until we have very few ‘safe’ foods remaining.
But why does this happen? Again, food is not the problem! The problem has not yet been addressed.
So, what’s really happening here?
A food intolerance or sensitivity occurs due to a combination of poor gut health and immune imbalances.
This can be initiated due to an unhealthy diet, severe or chronic stress, medications such as antibiotics or pain relief, high alcohol or caffeine intake or even malnutrition, restrictive eating or over-exercising.
Other, less common causes could include a parasite infection or even candida overgrowth caused by hormonal imbalance or maternal infection at birth.
Any of these triggers can deteriorate the beneficial or ‘healthy’ microbes in our gut which assist with rebuilding and maintaining the digestive lining, support digestion and absorption of nutrients and play an active part in controlling or balancing our immune system.
Now that the lining of the ‘gut’ (gastrointestinal tract) has been compromised, it’s difficult to absorb nutrients (which leads to deficiencies) and we have inappropriate absorption of large molecules such as bacteria, yeasts, food particles and more, which in a healthy gut would be filtered and allocated to be eliminated as waste.
The increased absorption of large molecules, such as food substances and microbes leads to increased load (work/effort/responsibility) for our immune system which will now begin to fight to correct this disturbance.
This can exacerbate an ‘inappropriate’ immune response such as autoimmunity or food sensitivity.
The below image from Cambridge Nutritional Sciences – the founders of “Food Print” testing, visually demonstrates this phenomenon quite well.
Food molecules which cross the intestinal barrier bind to immune substances called Immunoglobulin G which are designed to fight pathogens and build natural immunity.
IgG antibodies, together with a substance called compliment may form complexes which can attach to tissues around the body – leading to inflammation, further immune activation and even destruction of the tissue itself.
Now that the IgG response has occurred, your body is recognising this as a disturbance/threat to your health and will act accordingly to ‘protect’ you each time you consume that food.
Hence why eliminating the food helps alleviate your symptoms. No threat – no fight – no symptoms – does this make sense?
So why not eliminate for good?
Remember, the food is not the issue – the intestinal permeability (commonly referred to as ‘leaky gut’) and the inappropriate immune response is the issue.
So, while avoiding the food helps you avoid the reaction for now, over time you’ll continue to absorb other large molecules from other foods – leading to more intolerance.
So today you go dairy free and start consuming soy milk, soy cheese and soy yogurt – in 3-12 months you’ll be intolerant to soy – bring on the almond milk – the year after you’ll only be able to drink rice milk and before you know it, it’s black coffee or bust- substitution syndrome strikes again.
However, food elimination is still a crucial part of the treatment process as it helps to prevent further destruction of the gut and other tissues whilst you’re working on your rehabilitation, re-balancing and rebuilding of your digestive and immune systems.
So, what do we do about it?
Personally, I recommend a 3 step approach:
Step 1: Determine your food reactions which should be removed or reduced while you work on your healing program. This can be done through an elimination diet or blood testing.
Step 2: Introduce a healing, nourishing diet which stimulates digestive repair and supports natural immunity.
Also work on reducing lifestyle factors which may inhibit healing such as reducing stress or alcohol consumption. Supplements can support appropriate healing for an improved response.
Step 3: Reintroduce the foods gradually – monitor your body’s response and find your optimum intake level for these foods.
By reintroducing gradually (usually after a period of 2-3 months), you should find that you are able to build tolerance to the food – allowing you to return to a healthy, varied diet which is easily sustained in the long term.
For all of the above, I’ve tried to keep this super-complex syndrome and treatment process as simple as possible and explained in lay-mans terms.
However, of course it’s a lot more complicated than it seems and the treatment is definitely more effective, safer and achieve a better overall results when you work closely with a Nutritionist or Dietitian who knows the biochemistry and physiology behind this condition.
With a Nutritionist or Dietitian as your health partner, you can ensure that your diet remains healthy and balanced, tailor your diet to suit your unique needs/health goals and even minimise any unnecessary expense or limitations.
My advice is to always partner up with a health professional any time you make a significant dietary change.
Working with someone who specialises in dietary therapy and has studied it intensively over several years, ensures that you minimise any health complications and that your changes are made safely.
With the right program and the right support you can heal from intolerance and return to a healthy, balanced and varied diet once again.