Are Food Intolerances on the Rise?

Twenty-eight percent of adults 18 and older avoid gluten in their diets, according to NPD Group, a market research company. Around 30 million Americans have a degree of lactose intolerance. Why does it seem that more and more people are afflicted with the symptoms of food intolerance? Could you have a food intolerance?

Food Allergies versus Food Intolerance

Food allergies and intolerance or sensitivity can be hard to differentiate because some of the reactions overlap, but there are several important distinguishing signs and symptoms to look for.

Allergies: First, allergies trigger the immune system releasing histamines, while food intolerance does not. Food allergies cause an immediate response in the body and can be life-threatening, even in very small doses. Food allergies typically elicit symptoms every time you eat the foods. Some of the signs include:

  • hives, rash, itchy skin
  • shortness of breath or trouble swallowing
  • chest pain or sudden decrease in blood pressure

Food Intolerance: On the other hand, food intolerance can come on gradually. Normally, you won’t have a reaction immediately. Instead, it may take up to 48 hours for symptoms to emerge. A negative reaction may only occur when you’ve eaten large quantities of the food. Food intolerance is not life-threatening, although it can be very uncomfortable. Symptoms include:

  • gas, bloating, or cramps
  • heartburn
  • headaches
  • nervousness, irritability

Both allergies and food intolerance can cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and nausea.

Are Food Intolerances on the Rise?

Because there are limited tests to pinpoint food sensitivities, it can be difficult to find the culprit. Mainly, lack of enzymes cause the symptoms of food intolerance. Enzymes allow our bodies to fully digest foods; however, when some of these enzymes are insufficient, abdominal problems arise. Chemicals occurring both naturally in foods and those added to foods can cause increased food intolerance as well.

Undoubtedly, Americans eat more processed foods–foods which contain preservatives, additives, food colorings, and highly processed ingredients (especially flour and sugar). For instance, the U.S. per capita intake of fructose has increased from 32 to 48 percent from 1970 to 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, US News revealed that wheat has been genetically engineered to have 10% more gluten in it. The increased sugar, gluten, and preservatives may be taking its toll on our bodies.

On the other hand, some critics believe that food sensitivity is just the newest diet craze. One study reports that 95% of people that use gluten-free products admittedly do not have a food sensitivity to gluten nor do they have Celiac’s disease. Instead, 65% of those consumers ate gluten-free because they think those foods are healthier. 27% of them chose gluten-free products because they are trying to lose weight.

Food intolerance may be an easy label when, in fact, it is not the problem. Eating foods high on the glycemic index will naturally cause a energy crash after a spike in insulin levels. People may blame food intolerance when it’s just the normal effects of poor diet. Further, many processed foods contain indigestable ingredients like dextrin, cellulose, and inulin which may cause some people to feel bloated and gassy. Once again, people quickly want to label their problems with food intolerance when that is not accurate.

Lastly, some people perform blood tests to confirm food intolerance. The tests measure levels of IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies, which one study revealed isn’t an entirely reliable confirmation. Rather, the presence of IgE antibodies can be evidence of normal human response and tolerance.

How do You Handle Food Intolerance?

The best way to determine if you have a food intolerance is through elimination of questionable foods in your diet. Problem foods might include: dairy, food additives (sulfites, nitrates, MSG, and some food colorings), and gluten. You should keep a food diary of what you eat and any symptoms you experience. This will allow you and your physician to discover your trigger foods and determine whether they are an allergy, a food intolerance, or something else. You may be able to diminish symptoms by restricting intake of problem foods as well as taking supplements to aid in digestion.

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