You know that food that’s your kryptonite? The one that makes you feel terrible and you avoid like the plague? The battle with your nemesis food may not just be in your head. Food intolerances could affect up to 20% of the world’s population1 and can wreak havoc in your gastrointestinal system2. Thanks to recent research, we know some fundamental facts about food intolerance and why it makes you feel lousy.
What’s a food intolerance, anyway?
Sometimes, your body is particularly sensitive to a certain food or foods. This sensitivity can manifest in two main ways: through a food allergy or a food intolerance3,4. When someone has a food allergy, their immune system mistakenly identifies specific parts of food as enemy invaders and mounts a speedy counterattack. This response always involves the immune system and can be dangerous if the reaction is strong enough (think of that EpiPenâ-toting friend with the serious nut allergy). A food intolerance, on the other hand, involves a slower, milder and immune system-free response against certain food(s).
While food intolerances aren’t hazardous, they’re still a huge pain! Consuming the wrong food with an intolerance can result in bathroom visits galore due to gastrointestinal problems (e.g. gas or diarrhea), and non-GI issues such as heartburn and headaches2. Sadly, though they easily ruin your day, food intolerances can be tough to spot. They are often diagnosed by systematically banishing and reintroducing foods from the diet and seeing if intolerance symptoms disappear and reappear5. Other tests measure gases on your breath to see if you are digesting the “trigger food” abnormally, but these tests only work with certain foods6.
Why does my body hate this food?
Food intolerance diagnoses can be difficult because there are many mysterious ways your body can clash with a food. One known intolerance cause comes from trouble digesting a food in the first place2. An example of this is lactose intolerance, where people don’t produce enough of the proper digestion enzyme (lactase) to break down a sugar in milk products (lactose)7. All of that undigested lactose lays lazy in the gut, getting munched on by gut bacteria and causing nasty symptoms like gas and stomach cramps. Fruit sugars (fructose) can cause similarly irksome effects when the body can’t break down or absorb the sugar normally8.
You can also develop food intolerance due to more sensitive body systems. For instance, some people are hypersensitive to caffeine, becoming jittery, anxious or nauseated after drinking just a fraction of a standard Starbucks order9. In addition to potential caffeine digestion problems10, those with hypersensitivity may have brains that react much stronger to caffeine’s presence11. People with an intolerance for FODMAPs, foods containing carbs that must be digested by gut bacteria (e.g. onions), can also have symptoms due to an “overreactive” body. Those affected can feel the pressure from gas created after digesting FODMAPs more intensely and so can experience this pressure as painful12.
How do I fix my food feud?
Treatment of food intolerance usually involves reducing or avoiding the culprit food. In some cases, you can “reset” your body’s reaction to trigger food by removing it from your diet and then slowly re-introducing it, but this new food tolerance can rely on limiting trigger food intake13. When intolerance comes from a digestion problem, digestive enzymes can be taken when eating culprit foods to allow for normal food breakdown - this can be a good option when food removal would mess with your health (and when your kryptonite is actually something you love!). Whatever treatment is used, it’s important to make sure you’re still getting the nutrition you need.
Putting it all together
That raging battle with your nemesis food? It could be all too real. While not as dangerous as a food allergy, it can be really uncomfortable and keep you from some tremendous treats. Luckily, there are ways to manage food intolerance so that you can come out of the fight victorious, carefree and confident!