Food intolerance is on the rise. That is, awareness of food intolerance and its associated symptoms is growing. More than ever, we hear about celiac disease and the role of food additives in mental health. A number childhood health conditions can be traced to food intolerance and cracking that code is the first step on the road to recovery.
A food intolerance is different from a food allergy. Allergies are a response by the immune system to an ingredient in a food that it considers harmful (usually a protein). There is typically nothing wrong with the food itself, just how an individual’s immune system recognizes and interprets it. This “misidentification” triggers an allergy symptom — an “attack,” if you will, against the invader. Typical symptoms are hives or a rash, nausea or stomach pain, shortness of breath or anaphylaxis. Food allergies affect about 5% of children. With food allergies, the reaction is usually quick — within minutes or hours after eating. In some case, it can be life-threatening.
Food intolerances, it might surprise you, are much more common than allergies, though not always as easy to identify. They are not typically an immune system response, although celiac/gluten intolerance does fall under the autoimmune category. Food intolerance occurs when the digestive system is unable to break down and digest an ingredient in a food which causes irritation that can lead to a sometimes more complicated set of symptoms, some of which may mimic an allergic response. Gluten intolerance, for example, can trigger skin conditions and stomach pain, but also headaches and mood disorders.
Food intolerances occur for a variety of reasons. Lactose, a naturally occurring sugar, among the most common intolerance, occurs because some people lack the enzyme needed to fully digest and absorb it. Casein, a dairy protein that can irritate the gut lining causing reflux, can also trigger an intolerance if the body lacks the enzymes to break it down. A casein intolerance could lead to chronic ear infections or constipation. Soy intolerance may also play a role in ear infections.
Chemical additives in our processed food supply are becoming increasingly recognized as triggers of food intolerance. Sugars, artificial colors, flavor enhancers and preservatives are among those most likely to be the root cause of an intolerance situation. Studies have linked sensitivity to artificial colors with hyperactivity in children – the European Union has gone so far as to require any food with artificial colors to carry a warning label. Conditions such as depression, migraines, ADHD and autism have all been linked to specific foods; numerous studies on elimination diets for children with ADHD and autism have shown extraordinary improvement when offending foods are removed.
While a food intolerance can present itself quickly like an allergic reaction, it is also common for it to build up over time, with symptoms being attributed to other issues, until it becomes a serious impact to health. Ask anyone with a gluten sensitivity how they felt before removing it from their diet and how they feel now.
Determining if your child may have a intolerance (even a sensitivity can be debilitating in a small body), begin by keeping a journal of everything he or she eats and follow the symptoms which may be any of the following: nausea, stomach pain, gas, cramps, bloating, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, headaches, crankiness, hyperactivity, depression, brain fog, skin conditions, ear infections. Symptoms may appear within minutes or hours but it may also take a day or two.
If you suspect there may be a link with a particular food, an elimination diet is the quickest way to confirm it. Eliminate all foods with that ingredient for at least six days and monitor symptoms. Reintroduce it on the seventh day and see if there is any change. If the symptoms reappear, you can opt for testing or simply remove that food from your child’s diet. Note that some children have multiple sensitivities so you may want to eliminate multiple foods for this experiment and reintroduce them one at a time to see the reaction.
At some level, every human has a level of insensitivity to a particular food. When it affects the health and well-being of your child, who is not yet in tune with the messages his or her body is sending, it’s up to you to be the code breaker.
Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at email@example.com