Is food making you ill?

Almost half the population is estimated to be affected from some form of food intolerance and the problem will be highlighted during Food Allergy and Intolerance week.

Almost half the population is estimated to be affected from some form of food intolerance and the problem will be highlighted during Food Allergy and Intolerance week. EMMA LEE reports.

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If you've ever been ill because of a food allergy, or found your health improved after excluding certain foods from your diet, you're part of a growing but controversial trend.

More than 40pc of people are estimated to suffer from food intolerance. Symptoms often increase gradually and, at their most severe, can make life a misery.

A further 2pc - including 70pc of the chronically ill - are diagnosed with a food allergy where the immune system reacts almost immediately to certain ingredients, according to the charity, AllergyUK. Both conditions are being highlighted during Food Allergy and Intolerance Week.

The issue has hit the headlines recently when a survey revealed that many doctors dismiss food allergy symptoms as mainly in the mind. They believe regimes such as wheat-free and dairy-free diets are fashionable only because celebrities such as Carol Vorderman, Geri Halliwell and Victoria Beckham have embraced them.

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But Anna Suckling, a senior community dietitian based at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital says there has “definitely” been an increase in reported food allergy and intolerance.

“More people are being diagnosed therefore reported levels are increased compared to 10 years ago when people simply avoided foods rather than formally being diagnosed.

She says that there's a “distinct” difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance.

“An allergy will cause an immune reaction detectable by blood tests, as allergy markers are raised,” she says. “Allergic reactions usually include breathing difficulties to the extent of anaphylatic reaction, skin reactions in the form of rashes. These reactions are caused through minimal contact with the trigger food.

“A food intolerance usually indicates that a food can be eaten in small quantities but once you have reached your 'tolerance level' a side effect is initiated, for example vomiting, diarrhoea, bloating, cramps etc.”

She says that the first step to diagnosing a true food intolerance is keeping a detailed food and symptom diary because often pre-conceived ideas can lead to non-trigger foods being omitted from the diet needlessly.

“If you regularly suffer from abdominal cramps, diarrhoea or vomiting the first thing to do is complete a food and symptom diary. Write down everything you eat and drink, what you are doing the time, for example standing, sitting, driving etc, and how you feel. After five days look back over the diary and highlight when you had the pain and or diarrhoea.

“Many people suffer from irritable bowel type symptoms which are often not food intolerance related, but more linked with stress, activity and irregular eating habits as well as insufficient fluid and inappropriate fibre intake.

Once a potential irritant has been identified, it should be taken out of the diet.

Giving the example of dairy, which is a common irritant and allergen, she says: “There are two parts of dairy foods which could potentially be causing the problem, either the lactose (milk sugar) or the cows milk protein.

“If you omit all dairy completely you will not know which part is the problem, therefore trial omitting milk but keep having cheese and yoghurt.

“If symptoms resolve, then the lactose would appear to be the problematic food. If the problems do not resolve then cut out dairy for one week then reintroduce only cheese and yoghurt. If complaint returns then consider omiting all dairy”.

However, she warns: “It is very important that you substitute something in its place to ensure calcium requirements are met. Insufficient calcium intake will, in the long-term, increase risk of osteoporosis.”

Denise Russell, 44, from Blofield, near Norwich, has been wheat intolerant for 14 years.

“I was constantly feeling lethargic, I had a very bad tummy and tummy ache. I went to the doctor's and they diagnosed me with irritable bowel syndrome - I had a busy life and two small children. But I really had to really push to get a second opinion.

“Of course there wasn't the internet then, but I went to the library and read up on it and I put myself on a wheat-free diet. I found it really difficult because wheat is hidden in so many different things - in additives, which 14 years ago were not always listed on the packet.

“I found that I felt better, and because I felt so much better I didn't really miss the things I liked that I had to cut out.

“When I finally got a referral they made me eat wheat again for a month and the tests showed that it wasn't just the gluten in the wheat I was intolerant to but all of it. I was also intolerant to part of barley and oats.

“It's got easier since Sainsbury's, Tesco and Asda have started doing wheat-free ranges. And I find I can eat spelt wheat and the Mill Bakery at Swanton Morley does a range of products for special diets. I treat myself to a packet of chocolate biscuits and a packet of custard creams at Christmas,” she says.


If you answer yes to any of these questions there's a real possibility that you have an allergy or an intolerance. If you score four or more 'yes' answers it's pretty much guaranteed.

t Are you chronically tired?

t Can you gain weight in hours?

t Do you get bloated after eating?

t Do you suffer from diarrhoea or constipation?

t Do you suffer from abdominal pain?

t Do you sometimes get really sleepy after eating?

t Do you suffer from nasal congestion, sneezing, running nose etc?

t Do you suffer from rashes, itches, asthma or shortness of breath?