Coping with increasing food intolerance

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Matthew Solan

Who hasn’t eaten something that did not agree with them? But when your stomach issues become more frequent and severe, you might have a bigger digestion problem called food intolerance.

Food intolerances occur more often as you age, since your digestion naturally becomes slower and your body produces fewer enzymes needed to break down food.

“This allows more time for bacteria to ferment in the GI tract and lead to digestive distress,” said Evagelia Georgakilas, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Over time, you also may become more sensitive to particular foods, chemicals or additives. Some examples include sulfites found in wine, dried fruits and canned goods, or foods flavored with monosodium glutamate (MSG).

However, the most common food sensitivities are related to lactose and gluten. With lactose intolerance, your body can’t break down the sugar in dairy products (known as lactose) because your gut contains reduced levels of the intestinal enzyme lactase.

People with gluten sensitivity have trouble digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. (This is different from having celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder where consuming gluten damages the lining of the small intestine.)

Start a food diary

Common symptoms of food intolerance include nausea, diarrhea, cramps and stomach pain, but also may involve other issues like vomiting, heartburn, headaches, and irritability or nervousness.

Food intolerance is often tricky to pinpoint because you may be able to eat small amounts of a problem food without having any reaction. Instead, symptoms may only appear after you eat a large portion of the food, or eat it frequently.

The best way to identify problem foods is with a food diary. Write down what you eat for every meal, including individual foods and portions. Then list any symptoms that occur afterwards and rate their level of intensity on a scale of one to 10, with one being no reaction to 10 being the most severe.

Maintain your diary for two weeks to a month, and then review. “You should be able to find a connection between foods and common symptoms,” said Georgakilas.

To ease the discomfort

Once you pinpoint one, or several, potential problem foods, eliminate them from your diet. After a few days, add only one food back into your diet and monitor your reaction. “If your symptoms return, you’ve found the offending food,” said Georgakilas.

Eliminating the problem food from your diet is the easiest move, but here are some other strategies to consider:

• Reduce serving sizes. Sometimes you can still enjoy your favorite foods by reducing the amount, said Georgakilas.

• Make adjustments. Your food intolerance may be a cumulative effect. For instance, pizza might cause you problems, but it may be the result of certain ingredients, or combinations. “You may be able to tolerate the cheese and tomatoes on their own, but together they create the perfect storm,” said Georgakilas.

Try to eliminate specific ingredients one at a time, and then experiment with eliminating certain combinations until you find the right balance.

Also, if the problem food is a source of vital nutrients, make sure you find an adequate replacement. “Cutting out gluten foods like wheat can rob your diet of fiber and B vitamins,” said Georgakilas.

• Switch to gluten-free bread, or increase your intake of gluten-free grains like quinoa, sorghum, teff, millet and buckwheat.

• For lactose intolerance, drink almond or coconut milk to ensure you get enough calcium and protein.

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