When Your Own Food Turns On You
(October 9, 2018)
I have written here before on the twin topics of food allergies and food sensitivities. Thoroughly. Comprehensively. Nay, exhaustively. And with skill and insight as well. But I am prompted to do so again (in brief this time) because of a recent article on the subject from Consumer Reports that -- added nothing new to the subject.
Which annoyed me. Nothing new? I wrote that earlier stuff over three years ago. The sciences march on, as we all know, and said sciences include the science of medicine. So why no progress?
The answer is (surprise, surprise) because there’s no money in it, that’s why. Not only are there no existing treatments for food allergies, there are no theoretical ones, and (at least as far as I can determine) there is not even the ghost of an idea floating anywhere in the ether as to how one might even begin to get rid of one.
“No treatments” means that no one in industry is going to put a cent into research. Why put perfectly good money into researching something that might sometime help somebody if instead you could tart up some opioids in new packaging? Or maybe con the government into mandating a vaccine for an innocuous disease? No, if any progress is ever going to be made in the direction of eliminating food allergies, some do-gooder on a government grant will have to do it, and government research money doesn’t grow on trees these days.
So until that golden day arrives, all anyone with a food allergy can do is stay away from their Offending Food. (Which puts me in mind of the old vaudeville joke – “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” “Then (in a Yiddish accent, of course) don’t do that!”) If you’ve ever had a true allergic reaction to a food, you avoid that food like the plague and carry an EpiPen, and that’s pretty much all science has got for you these days.
Food INTOLERANCE (or food sensitivity), however, is another kettle of fish. And here is the first point – a food intolerance is NOT the same thing as a food allergy, although you hear people mixing them up all the time. A food allergy is very, very nasty; some combination of rapid onset face and throat swelling, hives, wheezing, dizziness, the whole gamut all the way to collapse that you've seen on episodes of ER. You eat something you are allergic to, you go to the hospital. You eat something you’re intolerant to, your nose runs. Easy to tell the difference.
A food allergy can cause the immune system to go into full panic mode -- it is not a pretty sight, and it can kill you in short order. A food intolerance is a response of (usually) the digestive system, and at its worst it won’t do much more than make you uncomfortable. That difference in severity, by the way, is why people with actual food allergies get a little testy when you tell them that you’re allergic to wheat because you get diarrhea every time you eat an entire Li’l Debbie coffeecake.
Only a couple percent of adults and a few percent of children have a true food allergy. Everyone else out there (up to thirty percent of the population, if you go by self-reporting) who says they have one actually has a food intolerance/sensitivity, and also is probably not getting enough attention at home.
That doesn’t mean that if beer gives you migraines that you should pretend that it doesn’t, even though you aren’t going to die from it. It’s just that you know every time you encounter beer, you’ve got a choice between drinking a cold one and getting a migraine, or not doing so. If you’ve got a food allergy, that’s a choice you’re never really going to have.
Here’s another thing. Unlike a food allergy, you CAN often get rid of a food intolerance. If you identify the offending food and avoid it for a number of months, your body will often sort of desensitize, allowing you to eat it from time to time thereafter without consequences. (This is nice because it’s an unwritten rule that if you do have a food intolerance, it’s probably to something you really like to eat.)
If the symptom(s) of your food intolerance is especially annoying or unpleasant, it is nice to be able to track it down and eliminate it. Then not only are you rid of the symptom, down the road a piece you may even be able to eat your special food again once in a while. Not too often, though, or the sensitivity can return. Chances are that’s why you acquired it in the first place.
The best way to track down an Offending Food is with an elimination diet. Since people apparently aren’t as tough as they used to be, the method usually proposed these days is an easy but fairly inadequate one -- eliminate a suspect food from the diet and check a few weeks down the road to see if the symptom is gone. But if you’ve guessed wrong at what’s causing the trouble, you’ll have wasted your time and maybe decided wrongly that your symptoms weren’t due to food at all.
Lastly, then. The absolute BEST way to do an elimination diet is to either water fast or eat a very limited, hypoallergenic diet for a week and see if your symptoms disappear. If they do, you know that they were indeed due to an Offending Food(s). Now you can add foods back to your diet one at a time, gradually, until the symptoms return. At which point you’ve nailed it, and you can take it from there.
--dr. diane holmes
Copyright © 2018