Food intolerance is a negative physical reaction to a specific food or drink. This can result from a compound that is naturally part of the food or drink, such as the lactose in milk, or it can result from a chemical additive, preservative, or a toxin like bacteria. Food intolerance symptoms can vary, but they often occur slowly, and usually involve gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, nausea, or diarrhea. Other food intolerance symptoms may be skin rashes, respiratory problems, or chronic headaches.
Many people mistake food intolerance for food allergies, although these are two different things. A food allergy is actually an immune response launched by a person’s body to fight off what the body perceives as a threat. Some common foods that induce food allergies are peanuts, eggs, shellfish, and wheat products. Food allergy symptoms are usually more severe and are more sudden than food intolerance symptoms, such as swelling of the throat, which requires immediate medical attention. Other food allergy symptoms include an itchy rash, heart palpitations, mental confusion, severe nausea and diarrhea, and chest pain.
Food intolerance commonly involves the inability to process a certain type of compound or chemical. Lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest lactose, is relatively common and people with this intolerance have the typical digestive symptoms listed above when consuming dairy products. Another relatively common food intolerance is intolerance for gluten, a commonly found protein in cereal, bread, and pasta. In addition to digestive problems, people with gluten intolerance may also experience headaches, weight changes, tiredness, or even depression.
Although food intolerance symptoms are less severe than food allergies and usually do not require immediate medical attention, the chronic occurrence of these symptoms can have long-lasting effects. Because many types of food intolerance involve gastrointestinal issues, this means that many foods consumed along with the offending food may not be properly absorbed. Over time, this can lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies.
Food intolerance is harder to diagnose than a food allergy because it does not involve the production of antibodies. The best way to understand the source of the symptoms is to keep a journal of all foods eaten and all symptoms over a certain period of time. Elimination of these foods from the diet is usually the best treatment for food intolerance symptoms, although some intolerances can be improved by special food products, such as milk or dairy products specially made for people with lactose intolerance.