Whenever I get into conversation with friends, family or co-workers, the topic of food inevitably comes up - not even by my own doing, though I probably have a little to do with steering it in that direction. People love talking about what food they like, why and how they prepare it but what's often not talked about is the way they feel after they eat.
Once upon a time, I believed that a plate of pasta with cheese, came with a side of pain. I knew that 15 minutes after eating my stomach would be in knots, my mind foggy and and my whole body pretty much would feel like a pile of garbage. After every birthday party, every holiday dinner, every night out, every fill in the blank, it was always the same thing. Pain, pain and more pain. But it became normal because I was used to it.
But what if it's not normal? What if feeling bloated, in pain and uncomfortable is not how one should feel after eating? While certain people truly suffer from food allergies and are reactive to certain foods, the number of people experiencing food intolerance is alarmingly high.
Many have sensitivity to gluten and dairy but the idea of giving up such staple foods feels perverse. I hear you, I was you. It’s not easy but it is possible. When you get to a point in your life where giving up certain foods far outweighs the pain you feel on a daily basis, the choice is easy. But you have to get there on your own.
In this post, I want to explore what food intolerance is and what you can do to get yourself to living pain free.
What is food intolerance
Most people are familiar with food allergies and the EpiPen. These are severe and in in some cases life-threatening. But food intolerance is subtle, chronic and just keeps us from feeling like ourselves. Most people recall being able to eat everything they wanted as children but then sometime around their teens and 20's, noticed a shift. The foods they once enjoyed now cause them pain. This is what happens when food is not properly digested, broken down and assimilated.
What's the difference between food intolerance and food allergy
With a food allergy, the immune system triggers a response to fight the invader protein found food. In some cases this can be life threatening, such as a peanut allergy.
A food intolerance, it’s a bit more subtle. Symptoms can sometimes take hours, days or even weeks to develop and are often chronic due to continuous consumption of the trigger food.
What causes food intolerance
Causes can sometimes be nebulous but most of the time it comes down to a few mechanisms that don’t properly function in certain people.
- Lack of enzymes - This is probably the biggest factor when it comes to food intolerance. Enzymes are responsible for speeding up the process of converting food to energy.
- Malabsorption issues - This prevents the absorption of glucose and sucrose, which ferment in the large intestine leading to bacterial overgrowth.
- Leaky gut (intestinal permeability) - This happens when the lining of the intestinal tract becomes permeable and unwanted food particles which are generally to be removed from the body, actually enter the blood stream leading to a number of inflammatory problems.
- GLUT 2 and 5 transport issues - Okay so without totally geeking out here, I will say that these are responsible for transporting carbohydrates in the form of fructose and glucose into intestinal cells. When this doesn’t properly take place, these carbohydrates end up en masse in the colon where they are broken down by bacteria, fermented and result in methane, hydrogen or carbon dioxide which lead to abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation or discomfort.
- SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) - again without getting too technical, bacteria in our gut are imperative to our survival and most of the time take up residence in the colon but some cases bacteria end up being trapped in the small intestine, (which is usually a sterile environment) thus leading to complications. Most of the symptoms of SIBO include malabsorption, weight loss, bloating, pain and diarrhea.
Symptoms of food intolerance
Because we're all unique, food intolerances can manifest slightly differently in each person but when it comes down to it, most of us will experience at least one of these on a regular basis after consuming the trigger food.
- abdominal pain
- Fibromyalgia symptoms which include muscle and joint pain
- chronic fatigue
- headaches or migraines
- skin rash
- sinus issues
- irregular periods
- ADHD symptoms
- weight loss or weight gain
- hypothyroidism as it relates to gluten intolerance most often known as Hashimoto’s
Now keep in mind, all of us have felt sick after eating at one point or another but if you notice a recurring trend after every single meal that contains a trigger food, you may suffer from food intolerance.
What are the trigger foods
- nightshade vegetables
- food coloring
- sulfites found in wine
I’m slightly biased as I only struggle with gluten and dairy intolerance but from research deduces, 18 million Americans currently struggle with gluten intolerance and 50 million with dairy intolerance. The numbers are staggering. If you want an in-depth read on gluten, check out this post.
But I get it, pizza is delicious and so is beer. I used to enjoy and indulge in them too. But if you feel your pain is worth exploring this further, you may benefit from looking into food intolerance.
How can you test for food intolerance
- Blood testing - while there can be some benefit to this, it can be costly and also can result in false positives.
- At home testing - again, while I think there could be some benefit to doing this, it can cause more stress as more than likely the results show you being allergic to a wide range of foods, which may not be accurate. But if you want to use this in conjunction with an elimination diet, then by all means go for it.
- Elimination diet - in my opinion this is the only accurate way to test for food intolerance. It’s completely safe, easy to do on your own and doesn’t cost anything. The best way to approach the elimination diet is to pick one week to completely eliminate a food and then slowly re-introduce it and see how you feel off and back on the food. If you notice a reaction, you’ll be better equipped to either make the necessary changes or not. This is a great step by step resource in guiding you through the process.
If you do have a food intolerance
- Eat a nutrient dense diet - which includes organic fruits and vegetables, pasture raised meat, organic free range eggs, nuts and seeds.
- Eliminate the biggest triggers - for me those were gluten and dairy.
- Take it easy on the grains - I personally don't do great with them so they're an occasional food.
- Eliminate sugar from the diet - opt for other sources such as honey and maple syrup.
- Repair your gut - include plenty of bone broth in your diet.
- Eat good bacteria - include fermented foods in your life. Here's a quick guide to basic fermentation.
- Take collagen and gelatin - These help to restore the gut lining.
What has worked for me is going on a 6 month strict paleo diet, eliminating all gluten, grains, legumes and dairy and including lots of nutrient dense, gut healing foods. Then slowly incorporating some grains and legumes back in but only in moderation. There's no better feeling than being able to go about your life pain free. Here are additional posts on my mostly paleo diet, eating real food and what I keep in my pantry.
Great post. Very informative and clears up a lot of misconceptions and confusion!
This is a very clear and informative post about a topic that most people would like to ignore. Sadly, more and more folks are developing food intolerance – especially children. Thanks for all the info!
Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
It's so important for people to understand the difference between allergy and intolerance. What a great post!
I love how you explained the difference between allergy and intolerance! So many people get that a bit confused..
Food intolerances can be so tricky! I'm intolerant to dairy and sugar. They both affect me differently, though. Sometimes my symptoms can be days out from ever eating the thing I'm intolerant to!
This was a very thorough post! You've really covered it all so well - from the difference between food intolerance and food allergy all the way to what to do if one discovers that they do have a food intolerance. So helpful to those who are dealing with these issues.
YES! I was shocked when I learned not all food intolerance means "allergy"!
Carol Little R.H. @studiobotanica
Very informative post Daniela! So very helpful to share the differences between allergies and sensitivities and bring attention to the many possible symptoms. I will definitely share your post!
May I suggest a #8 to your list?
As an herbalist in practice, I've had great success with clients drinking 3 cups of nettle infusion (minimum) daily. Sometimes, this anti-allergy herb, solo or in a tasty blend, can be SO helpful with the whole 'bringing back to balance' quest, which helps reduce or eliminate symptom in cases of allergies + sensitivity.
Carol - thank you so much for your insight and knowledge! I'm absolutely going to research nettle tea. That's incredibly interesting!