Food intolerances: how to identify them and avoid their effects

Food intolerances are a type of adverse reaction to a food, or to a component present in certain foods. It is important to differentiate them from food allergies, as well as from other types of reactions, such as food poisoning or psychological aversion to a food.

Do you want to know what are the main food intolerances and how to identify them? In this article you will find the main symptoms as well as tips to make a food intolerance more bearable.

What is the difference between allergy and intolerance?

Immune system reaction

Food allergy is a specific form of intolerance to a food or one of its components, which activates the immune system. An allergen (protein from the offending food, which in most people does not produce adverse reactions) triggers a series of chain reactions in the immune system, including the production of antibodies.

Food intolerance affects the metabolism and although it may have symptoms similar to those of an allergy, the immune system does not intervene in the reactions. Food intolerance occurs when the body cannot properly digest a food or one of its components.

Intensity of symptoms

The most common symptoms of allergies are: hives, rashes, swelling of the lips or eyelids, eye redness, coughing, diarrhea, vomiting, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, hypotension or dizziness. Allergies can even be fatal.

Intolerances present similar but milder symptoms, although they are still quite annoying, such as abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, bloating, etc.

In addition, allergy symptoms usually appear within 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion, whereas intolerance symptoms may take longer to appear, even after 72 hours.

What are the most common intolerances?

Lactose intolerance

This intolerance is due to the inability of the digestive system to digest lactose, which is the sugar in milk.

It is caused by a deficit in the body's production of an enzyme called lactase, which is responsible for digesting and consequently absorbing this milk sugar. When the enzyme activity is too low, lactose cannot be digested and passes into the large intestine, where it is fermented by the bacteria of the intestinal flora.

It can cause symptoms such as flatulence, pain and diarrhea.

This intolerance may be permanent or transitory.

Tolerance can be improved in sensitive individuals if lactose-containing foods are consumed as part of different meals, and the amount of lactose-rich foods eaten at one time is reduced.

Gluten intolerance

Gluten intolerance is an autoimmune-based intestinal disorder that occurs when the body cannot tolerate gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and probably oats).

When foods containing gluten are consumed, the mucosa of the small intestine is damaged and is less able to absorb essential nutrients such as fats, proteins, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.

Symptoms include diarrhea, weight loss, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, loss of muscle mass, fatigue, irritability and abdominal pain. In children, symptoms of malnutrition and even growth problems may occur.

It is a permanent intolerance that can be diagnosed at any age and is maintained throughout life.

Currently, the only way to help celiac patients is to provide them with a gluten-free diet. When gluten is eliminated from the diet, the intestine gradually regenerates, and symptoms disappear.

Other intolerances

Intolerance to sucrose: It consists of an intolerance to common sugar and is due to the lack of an enzyme called saccharase, which hinders the proper digestion of sucrose and causes symptoms such as diarrhea, flatulence and abdominal pain.

Fructose intolerance: Fructose, also known as levulose, is the sugar present in fruits, certain vegetables and honey. Difficulties in digesting this sugar cause symptoms such as diarrhea, flatulence and abdominal pain.

Histamine intoleranceHistamine is a substance manufactured by our own body, although it is also present in many other foods (cheese, vegetables, wine, chocolate, etc.). The enzyme DAO is responsible for degrading histamine when it accumulates in the body. When intolerance occurs, the body is unable to absorb it and it accumulates. In high concentrations, histamine is toxic. It can trigger asthma attacks, gastric problems, poor physical performance, headaches and migraine attacks.

What to do about food intolerances?

If you suspect you may be suffering from a food intolerance, it is very important to seek professional advice. It is also important to seek the help of a dietician or nutritionist to ensure that nutrients are not excluded from the diet when changing or substituting foods.

Once the food or component causing the intolerance is known, the best way to protect yourself is to read the ingredient information on labels. It is also important to ask about the ingredients and cooking methods used when eating away from home to avoid foods that cause problems.