When a Food is not your Friend

As the saying goes, ‘You are what you eat’. What happens if you are reacting to what you are eating? Most people don’t think twice about eating a breakfast of eggs and toast and a glass of milk or orange juice, but if there is food sensitivity, this could result in many unpleasant symptoms that could even be life threatening.

Food sensitivities are due to a toxic reaction to food and include food allergies and food intolerance. Let’s discuss food allergies first.

Your digestive system is a barrier between the outside world and the inside world of your body. It is constantly being bombarded with new molecules from the food that we eat. When you have a food allergy, the surveillance part of your immune system is sensing the food, or a substance in the food, as problematic.  In order to defend itself, it mounts a response (secretes immunoglobulins such as IgE) against that foreign substance to deactivate or neutralize it. Through this process, chemical mediators (histamines) are released and you can experience symptoms such as hives, an itchy throat, watering eyes, nausea, diarrhea and even anaphylaxis with a severe allergy. Sometimes the food reaction isn’t immediate; there can be a delay up to 48 hours. So, you could eat a tofu dog today and then two days from now have diarrhea. This makes it confusing and difficult to determine the source of the reaction.

Common food allergens:

  • bread with caution tapeEgg
  • Cow’s Milk
  • Peanut
  • Tree nuts such as walnuts
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Shellfish such as shrimp, crayfish, lobster, and crab
  • Fish
  • Corn

With food intolerance there is a reproducible toxic reaction to food that involves the digestive system rather than the immune system. These reactions can occur for several reasons. It could be as a result of lacking a specific enzyme that processes or digests food. An example of this is lactose intolerance, where the enzyme to break down lactose is deficient.  Another example is when there a reaction to a food additive such as sulphites found in wine, or to MSG commonly found in processed food as a flavor enhancer. Gluten intolerance is a little bit different, as it has characteristics of both a food allergy and intolerance and really deserves a whole separate article.

Symptoms of food allergy and food intolerance can be very similar and therefore confusing!  Gastrointestinal symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, gas and bloating are common. It isn’t so intuitive to consider symptoms beyond the digestive tract to be related to foods that you are eating, but more systemic symptoms are also common: eczema, psoriasis, headaches, migraines, joint pain, fatigue, hives, mood swings, asthma, recurrent bladder infections, and recurrent upper respiratory infections to name a few.

More and more people are reacting to foods- be it an allergy or an intolerance. The reasons are complicated and varied.  If you have an intolerance due to lacking an enzyme, this is genetically determined (you can thank your parents). If isn’t due to lacking an enzyme, then one must look at the situation more holistically. Why is the immune system seeing allergen free stickersa particular food as a threatening invader? Is it the actual food that is the problem or an immune system imbalance? Is there too much inflammation from eating processed foods, air pollutant exposure, consuming Genetically Engineered foods, recurrent anti-biotic exposure, imbalances in healthy gut flora, or an overall higher level stress, challenging our digestive and immune system translating into food reactions?  The bottom line is, chronic inflammation produced from recurrent food reactions has been linked to chronic diseases. Regardless if it is food allergy or intolerance, avoiding the trigger is a big part of breaking this cycle.

There are few ways to determine if you are reacting to foods. Remember, there is a difference between an allergy and intolerance to food. In order to determine if you have a food allergy or intolerance, the gold standard is an ‘elimination/challenge diet’. This is where you would be on a restrictive diet for a period of time (3-4 weeks) and remove foods that are shown to be common culprits. Then in a systematic way, there is a food challenge, and subsequent observation of symptoms. Due to the fact that the potential offending agent has been removed, it is more obvious when it is added back in if it is problem.

If you want to see the ‘hard data’ and don’t want to go through the process of removal and re-introduction of food, you could get a food allergy test. This a blood test specifically testing a surveillance part of your immune system (IgE and IgG4), and determining if the proteins in food are causing a problematic immune system response. If a food is not causing an immune response it isn’t going to show up as a problem on this test, so, if there is a food intolerance, this specific test isn’t going to shed light on this. There are other tests that can check for specific intolerance to foods (ex lactose or gluten). If you suspect that foods you are eating are affecting you, talk to your Naturopathic doctor about how to determine the best course of action.




The role of hidden food allergy/intolerance in chronic disease.  Gaby AR. Altern Med Rev. 1998 Apr;3(2):90-100.



 Nina Paroo, ND

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