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Intolerance or Allergy?

Food intolerances are the latest buzzword. Everyone appears to have one- but what are the facts?

The reality is that 1 in 3 people in the UK believe that they have a food allergy, and think that it may be adversely affecting their health.

Allergy or Intolerance?

Many people confuse the terms allergy and intolerance, something that is worrying to doctors, as an allergy could be trivialised and not taken for the potentially serious condition that it is.

An allergy results when a person has an extreme and abnormally high sensitivity to a normally harmless substance. It is possible to be allergic to virtually anything from foods, environmental chemicals, artificial food additives to yeast or fungi. Classic allergy can be life-threatening resulting in Anaphylaxis, a potentially serious collapse that can hinder breathing.

Symptoms can include a skin rash, nausea, fatigue, stomach pains, nasal congestion, dizziness, watery eyes, headaches, dark circles under the eyes and insomnia.

An intolerance can be uncomfortable, is rarely life-threatening, but it could possibly lead to long-term illnesses such as Arthritis, Asthma, Eczema and IBS. It often occurs when the body lacks an enzyme to breakdown a certain food, e.g. a person who is intolerant to milk simply lacks the enzyme lactase needed to digest lactose (a milk sugar). It is when undigested lactose passes into the gut that it starts to cause a problem, usually, in the case of dairy, excess gas and bloating.

Because reactions to food can be delayed, sometimes up to 3 days, the culprit food can be difficult to detect, whereas with an allergy, the reaction tends to be instant and occur every time the culprit food is ingested.

Why are we experiencing such a growth of food intolerances?

The introduction of wheat and dairy is a relatively new thing in our diets. We are also eating more foods out of season alongside limited diets – eating the same foods too often, e.g. wheat at every meal in various guises. The hygiene hypothesis states that now our environments are cleaner and we are obsessed with everything being sterile and anti-bacterial, children’s’ immune system are not as robust as they used to be, coupled with the alarming rise in antibiotic use; our immune systems are under constant assault.


An intolerance or sensitivity to wheat is a common cause of tiredness, water retention, loss of concentration and digestive problems. When we stop to consider how often it is eaten, we may be consuming it at every meal; wheat-based cereal or toast, sandwich for lunch and pasta in the evening, and that’s not including any biscuits, cakes or snacks during the day.


Some who cannot tolerate dairy products are able to cope with butter, the reason is that it is the milk protein that triggers the reactions but butter is nearly 100% fat. Dairy produce can cause cramps, wind, diarrhoea, eczema, tingling lips, sneezing or sinus problems.

Sheep or goats’ milk may be better tolerated, this is due to the difference in the proteins; they are different, but not different enough to make them tolerable for everyone.


Yeast is another common allergen. Present in many foods and drinks, so careful examination of labels is required if you are avoiding it. Those who react to yeast are likely to have a strong reaction to alcohol, in particular wine and beer. Also ensure that you don’t eat out of date foods which may contain high yeast levels.

Chocolate, Coffee & Nuts:

These are in the pip/nut family. If you react to nuts (not peanuts are they are from another food family), it is possible you’ll react in some way to chocolate and coffee.


There are 100’s of chemicals permitted for food use, with the 2 most common triggers being monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the colouring tartrazine (E102). As your diet changes to contain more wholefoods, it will naturally become lower in food additives.

Other common food trigger are sulphites (a group of chemicals found in wine and seafood). Foods rich in the amino acid tyramine, such as blue Cheeses, beer, wine and canned food, can provoke migraines – as can Chocolate, Caffeine and Citrus; these can also cause aching joints - think of the 4 C’s.

Histamine is found in many foods and can provoke sneezing, swelling and itching. Whilst anti- histamines may provide relief, they are not a cure, and a elimination diet may help to deal with any reactions in a more sensible way long term.

Another trigger food is eggs, not to be confused with dairy. Eggs can trigger headaches, behavioural and skin problems (a rash around the mouth and swelling of the face); however this is seen more often in children than adults.

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