When my readers speak (or write), I listen. Many of you are experiencing physical and mental snafus on a daily basis. These issues can add up and seriously impact your overall well-being and enjoyment of life. Fatigue, brain fog, constipation, rashes, gas and bloating are just a few of the troubles I come across in reader comments and emails each day.
There are many potential roots behind these discomforts, but one of the easiest ones to identify is your food. That’s where I started last year when my energy began to drop and pesky health bummers crept up. As always, I put on my detective hat and consulted with my integrative MD. One simple blood test revealed that I have a few food intolerances. Lucky for me, I don’t have food allergies.
So how do you spot a food intolerance or allergy? And most importantly, how do you create an even better diet and lifestyle without those trouble foods? That’s why we’re here today, my friends. Let’s dive in …
What’s the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance?
Food Allergy: A food allergy develops when your immune system mistakenly identifies a specific protein as a threat and sends a swat team of white blood cells to attack it. When the protein enters the digestive system, an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) is produced and the allergic response occurs.
Reactions to food allergens range from mild to severe and may affect your skin (hives, tingling mouth, swelling of the lips, tongue, face or throat), digestive tract (nausea, vomiting, cramping, diarrhea) or the respiratory system (including a possible dangerous drop in blood pressure). Severe cases can involve a life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which requires immediate treatment.
The most common food allergens are cow’s milk (the protein in milk, not the lactose), tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, filberts/hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts), peanuts, eggs, seafood, shellfish, soy and wheat — often called the “Big Eight.”
Food Intolerance: Most food reactions are actually caused by food intolerances rather than true allergies. Unlike an allergy, food intolerances do not involve a hasty immune reaction, so you may be able to eat these foods in small amounts without much trouble. Just keep in mind that although food intolerances are generally less serious, they could still cause digestive upset, joint pain, migraines, eczema, sinusitis and many other discomforts.
The most common food intolerance is a reaction to lactose in cow’s milk. If you’re lactose intolerant, your digestive system lacks the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for breaking down the milk sugar, lactose. This can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea when you consume milk products, but since the immune system isn’t involved, it’s not a true food allergy.
Other common food intolerances include gluten (found in wheat, oats, barley and rye), eggs, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and goji berries), alcohol and foods high in fructose such as high-fructose corn syrup, raisins, honey, agave nectar, mango, apples, pears and watermelon.
How do I test for a food allergy?
If you suspect that you have a food allergy, your doc can do a skin prick test or a blood test.
Skin prick: A tiny amount of the suspected food is placed on your arm or back and then your skin is pricked to let a small amount of the food below the surface of your skin. If you’re allergic, you’ll likely develop a raised bump on your skin.
Blood test: A sample of your blood is sent to the lab where different foods can be tested with your blood sample and the levels of IgE antibodies can be measured after each exposure. Check out Metametrix lab for a complete food allergies test.
Neither the skin test nor the blood test for allergens are 100 percent accurate, so your doc may use family history and description of your symptoms as a final determination of whether or not you have a food allergy.
How do I test for a food intolerance?
If your symptoms point to food intolerances or sensitivities, an elimination diet is often used to determine whether or not certain foods are trouble foods. Suspect foods are eliminated for 14-21 days and then added back in one at a time. Do not use this approach with true allergens, since you run the risk of experiencing a life-threatening reaction when the suspect food is added back in.
If the elimination diet doesn’t provide clear-cut food intolerance answers, a hydrogen breath test can be done to determine lactose intolerance or fructose malabsorption. The same test is done to diagnose irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a non-invasive test done in a clinic setting after fasting for 12 hours.
ALCAT food intolerance testing is also available and measures intolerances to 350 foods, herbs and chemicals listing items as red (serious reaction/avoid for 6 months), orange (moderate reaction), yellow (mild tolerance) or green (no reaction). The down side is that this testing is pricey and often shows many false positives for food intolerances. For these reasons, most health professionals do not recommend this testing for food intolerances.
As I mentioned earlier, I found out about my food intolerances with a blood test. You can learn more about the ELISA test at the Genova Diagnostics website.
What are some helpful alternatives to common allergens?
Tree Nuts and Peanuts: Sesame seeds are common and potential allergens, but sunflower and pumpkin seeds very rarely cause an allergic reaction. Sunflower seed butter and pumpkin seeds are nutritious alternatives.
Cow’s Milk and Soy: There’s a wealth of non-dairy and soy-free alternatives made from almond, rice, oats, flax, hemp and coconut on the market now.
Eggs: Flax seeds and chia seeds can be used in place of eggs in baking. Commercial egg replacers, such as Ener-gee brand, are also available.
Wheat: Rice crackers and pasta, quinoa pasta and gluten-free breads are more and more readily available today.
Seafood and Shellfish: Many plant-based whole foods provide all the necessary protein building blocks without the allergen response. Beans, lentils, seeds and several vegetables are loaded with protein.
Take an inventory. Could certain foods be linked to the health struggles in your life? It might be worth a peek under the hood with your doc and some strategizing in the kitchen. And don’t worry about what you might have to give up. Once you’ve identified your trouble foods, you can create a delicious allergen-free or intolerance-free life. Who knows! You might even discover that your new and improved diet is even more satisfying and mouth-watering than your old one.
Your turn: How have you handled food allergies or intolerances?
Kris Carr is a New York Times bestselling author and health advocate. Her books and film include the groundbreaking Crazy Sexy Cancer series, Crazy Sexy Diet and most recently, Crazy Sexy Kitchen. Kris regularly lectures at medical schools, hospitals, wellness centers, corporations such as Whole Foods and Harvard University. As an irreverent foot soldier in the fight against disease, Kris inspires countless people to take charge of their health and happiness by adopting a plant-based diet, improving lifestyle practices and learning to live and love with passion.