July 17, 2021

Food Intolerances - what you need to know

What are the most common food intolerances? 

According to the Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results-Food and Nutrients, published 2013, in 2011-2012 17% of Australians reported avoiding food groups due to food allergy or intolerance. Of the food groups avoided, top of the list was cow’s milk and/or dairy, followed by foods containing gluten then shellfish and peanuts. Following a vegan diet or plant-based diet clearly removes a vast proportion of these issues!

Whilst following My Vegan Meal Plan you won’t have these issues; it's still important to discuss them to reinforce some of the health benefits of being on a plant-based diet.

Many of these reported avoidances may have come from self-prescribed food avoidance. Unwanted symptoms stemming from intolerances such as gas, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, pain and cramping which may improve or resolve by practicing food avoidance, which (in the short term) is fantastic for increasing quality of life.

On the other hand, cutting out foods or entire food groups without the supervision of your GP or Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) can sometimes do more harm than good long term. What I am about to discuss below is no replacement for professional guidance but does provide an overview of what food intolerances are and why they occur.

Is food intolerance the same as food allergy?

Food intolerance and allergies may have some similar symptoms. Intolerances and allergies are adverse food reactions with vastly different mechanisms, diagnostic measures and interventions.

Food allergies trigger our immune system and can be life threatening. If you experience symptoms such as hives, skin rash, vomiting, diarrhoea, agitated skin, swelling of the tongue, lips, face and/or eyes, or difficult breathing, seek immediate medical assistance or call 000. We are not going delve into food allergies in this article. More so we will focus on food intolerances.

Food intolerances do not threaten your immune response. Rather it’s that your body will struggle to digest, absorb or process certain components of these foods. The part of the body responsible for these functions is known as the gastrointestinal (GI) tract which includes the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine and anus. Each section has a different role, with the small and large intestine being most(but not the only) affected in food intolerances as they are the main site for absorbing the food we eat.

There are a number of causes for food intolerances.

·        Microbial contamination, for example, your bread may be a little mouldy;

·        Some people may have issues digesting /metabolising various food additives;

·        Genetics;

·        Gastrointestinal disorders. Disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lactose intolerance, irritable bowel diseases (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and others; or

·        Psychological and behavioural - our gut and brain 'talk' to each other so when psychological issues arise such as anxiety, it can impact the way in which our digestive system functions.

What is Lactose intolerance?

Lactose is the sugar naturally in some dairy products. Lactose requires a specific enzyme called lactase to break it down for digestion. People who produce small amounts of lactase will have trouble digesting large amounts of lactose. This can lead to bloating, pain, gas and diarrhoea.

These days, with the growth in popularity and acceptance of plant-based diets, there is an abundance of non-dairy alternatives to dairy that we can choose as substitutes.

What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?

IBS is not really a food intolerance as such. IBS does not trigger an inflammatory response in the gut. However, you may still suffer the debilitating symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and stomach pain. These symptoms come from abnormal muscle contractions of the GI tract which ‘squeeze’ food along overly-sensitive nerves in the intestines, and disharmony between the gut and brain (anxiety, for example, can negatively impact how the gut functions). IBS is extremely common, so if you have been diagnosed it may bring comfort knowing that about 20% of Australians experience the symptoms of IBS at some time during their life.

If diagnosed with IBS, it’s essential to receive professional advice from an APD. They will help determine which food groups it is that is triggering your IBS.

This is because common foods which contribute to IBS include fruits, vegetables, nuts and dairy - all of which offer a broad spectrum of vital nutrients that contribute to your overall health. Striving for 30 different plant-based foods per week ensures you are maintaining a well-rounded diet. And yes: it is absolutely possible to do this once you know the exact foods/food types contributing to your symptoms.

Food for thought: IBS does not directly lead to internal damage or severe health problems. (Gastroenterological Society of Australia,2021)


What is Gluten intolerance?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and a hybrid mix of rye and wheat called triticale.

Following a gluten free diet is medically necessary if you suffer from

·        Coeliac disease

·        Wheat allergy

·        Non-gluten sensitivity

These days people might avoid gluten even without these symptoms because they believe following a gluten-free diet is healthier, due to social media, advertising etc. Many companies are now marketing gluten-free as a healthier option, charging a premium for these products! If you genuinely feel better avoiding barley, rye, oats and wheat and it does not interfere with your lifestyle and diet quality (providing you are consuming other grains like rice and quinoa), then this is completely fine. However, if the sole reason for this is because celebrities, testimonials and books validate avoiding gluten for health reasons - then stop right there. There is no science that states foods containing gluten is bad for your health. Unless you fall within the very small percentage of the population with the above-mentioned conditions.

What we need to remember is the health benefits that come with consuming barley, rye, wheat and oats in the absence of these related conditions. These include fibre for gut and heart health, carbohydrates and energy which fuel an enjoyable and active life, vitamins and minerals to ensure bodily processes are working and one thing that is especially forgotten – the fact that they can be a component of a delicious, healthy meal with no adverse health outcomes for the otherwise healthy person.

Understanding the difference between food intolerance and allergies will allow us to make better informed decisions. With our plant-based diet, we are able to avoid many of the potential risk factors with dairy, however it is key to remember we still need to be vigilant on the choice of food groups we consume. While it is completely understandable that some turn to cutting out foods and food categories, there are better ways around this which enable a less restricted, enjoyable lifestyle. If you feel as though your symptoms are not improving, it may be worthwhile visiting a health professional to regain some control of your symptoms, diet and lifestyle.