I’m definitely one of the lucky people when it comes to allergies.
My older brothers got the short end of the stick. I think they must have taken the hit for me – both allergic to peanuts, one also allergic to tree nuts and pollen on top of cat and dog hair, the other raw eggs and peas.
Me? None. Zip. Zero. Even the list of foods I don’t tolerate well can be limited to sugar alcohol. This is becoming a less and less common thing as the years go on though. Here are some fun statistics:
- Eight foods account for 90% of all allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. (1)
- While most children grow out of food allergies, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and fish tend to be lifelong. (1)
- In the UK, hospital admissions for food allergy increased by 500% from 1990 to 2006. (2)
- Food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. (3)
- The increases in allergy prevalence is seen almost exclusively in developed nations.
There are a lot of parallels between food intolerance and food allergies – but one should NOT consider food intolerance as a kind of ‘light’ food allergy.
The mechanisms between the two are very different:
- Allergies cause an immune reaction, typically through increases in Immunoglobulin E (IgE)
- Food Intolerance does not cause an immune reaction in the same way as allergies. There may still be one, but it’s unclear if there always is and how or why it may be caused. (4)
- Gluten intolerance in particular does not appear to cause ‘leaky gut’ – aka causing your intestines to be more porous, allowing other matter in your gut to get into the bloodstream. (4, 5)
- Celiac disease in particular is neither an allergy nor an intolerance – rather it is an autoimmune condition.
A note on leaky guts
“Leaky gut” is a proposed mechanism for a lot of different conditions – from arthritis to heart disease. While it is certainly a thing that can happen (such as in celiac disease), food intolerance does not seem to cause it.
In looking around for information on leaky gut, what exactly causes it seems to be a bit of controversy. Only in the last decade or so are there many studies affirming that it’s a thing that could happen from food in the first place. The one clear thing I got through is this: how common, what causes, how to diagnose and how to treat ‘leaky gut’ is NOT clear.
Diagnosing is hard.
Pin-pointing exactly what compound you are having a reaction to is pretty tough. Self-diagnosing can be even more unreliable. Imagine this scenario:
You suspect that you may have a gluten intolerance. You cut out regular noodles and replace it with cauliflower rice. Your daily lunch-time sandwich gets replaced with a vibrant salad. Instead of cereal for breakfast you’re having two hard-boiled eggs and fruit.
The result? You feel great! Full of energy all day with none of your usual brain fog. Must have been the gluten, right?
Or could it be that you’re eating more fruits and vegetables and replaced your high-carbohydrate breakfast for a high-protein and fiber one?
Okay, so what if you don’t replace everything with healthful foods, but you still cut out gluten?
Your breakfast of a protein shake goes out the window. Maybe you replace it with some gluten-free cereal or toast or something.
No more mid-morning protein bar for you! Replace it with some kind of gluten-free treat from Whole Foods maybe.
Your gum-chewing habit is nixed. (Even many gums have gluten in them, who knew?) Replace it with diet soda.
Certainly didn’t have a more nutritious diet there, but you still feel loads better than before. Definitely the gluten then!
Or could it be that you’ve gotten rid of sugar alcohol and protein powder – two substances that often cause gas, diarrhea and discomfort in some individuals?
Let’s get even more precise! Suppose you think you have an intolerance or allergy to fish – so you eliminate all fish from your diet. Bam, feel better, but never eat fish again. No more sushi nights for you, right?
But what if your intolerance or allergy wasn’t to fish it all – it was to a compound found in the environments of Atlantic Cod fish, but not Nile Perch? (6)
Or you think that you’re going to have to live a life without ice cream – everytime you have some Americone Dream you’re running to the toilet 5 minutes later for a miserable half hour of digestive rioting. (Worth it for ice cream, maybe?)
But actually you’re just allergic to Carrageenan – thank goodness you went to the doctor to figure that out and now you can enjoy some Stonyfield ice cream in peace.
Okay, so you go to the doctor to get tested for a food sensitivity. That’s the way to actually find out exactly what’s going on, right?
Maybe….but then again maybe not.
Diagnosing is hard. Some people won’t show the same symptoms as others, won’t have the same reactions on their skin or in their blood. Some people can handle different dosages of a particular substance before symptoms show up. On top of these difficulties, with all of the buzz about the dangers of dairy, gluten or <insert dietary fear du jour>, nocebo effect can be a plausible explanation for some patients’ symptoms.
Nocebo Effect: Negative reactions from a harmless substance as a result of a patient’s expectations about how the substance will affect him or her.
If there’s one thing I would like someone to take away from this post it would be this:
When it comes to food intolerances, sensitivites and how exactly they affect our system…we don’t really seem to know. Not yet.
But there are steps that you can take to improve how you feel. And this book actually does have some pretty good ideas for how to do so. Unfortunately it’s presented in the context of massive weight loss and a manner that is anything but humble –
and a little humility is exactly what’s needed when it comes to new fields like this.
In Part II I’ll include some choice quotes from the book on this subject so we can compare what we kinda know with what the book is trying to tell us. Check back next week!