How To Determine Food Sensitivities?

Food sensitivities are a growing problem worldwide, and researchers think 20% of the population is affected. While both food allergies and food sensitivities are grouped under a broader term called food hypersensitivities, they're evidently distinct. Food allergies affect around 5-6% of the adult population.

However, due to the seriousness of the condition and aftermath, allergies have garnered more awareness. A lot of people affected by food sensitivities might just brush off certain foods as not agreeable. It is still important to understand what food sensitivities are - how allergies are different, and their effects on one’s health. 

What Are Food Sensitivities? How Are They Distinct From Allergies?

A lot of people are confused about food-related allergies and food sensitivity. This confusion is aggravated because a lot of symptoms of the two conditions can be common. However, the two are fundamentally different in the responses they trigger in the body.

Food allergies cause the body’s immune system to think a harmless substance is a disease-causing pathogen. Sensitivities however are the body’s inability to digest a particular portion of food. Allergies trigger the immune system to release antibodies and inflammation-causing chemicals. This results in symptoms like hives, sneezing, rashes, and in severe cases, anaphylaxis.

In the case of food sensitivities or intolerance, the body lacks an enzyme to break down a portion of food. The inability to metabolize the food results in nasty reactions. Some of them include bloating, anxiety, flatulence, and in some cases, involve the immune system as well. 

Common Food Intolerances

A lot of foods result in disagreeable reactions in people and cause a great deal of discomfort. But there are certain foods that are the usual suspects. They cause the highest incidence of food intolerance among people. Here’s a list of common food intolerances to help you out- 

  • Dairy & Its Derivatives: More than 60% of the population is expected to have trouble digesting the sugar found in milk, lactose. While a lot of people have this problem right from their childhood, some develop lactose intolerance as they grow older. The body reduces the amount of lactase it produces, the enzyme that breaks down lactose into simpler sugars. Another enzyme in the digestion of milk and dairy is rennin. It too is progressively decreased in production with aging. People with lactose intolerance face symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, excessive flatulence, and nausea. A way to mitigate lactose intolerance is by having fermented dairy products like yogurt. These products contain partially digested lactose and milk protein. 
  • FODMAPs: There are several sugars present in the human diet that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. These sugars also pull in a lot of water and have to be transported to the colon in the large intestine. While these sugars aren’t quite used by the body itself, they’re food for the bacteria in your gut. They’re called fermentable, osmotic, disaccharides, monosaccharides,and polyols or FODMAPs in-short. FODMAPs are commonly found in large quantities in fermented beverages, legumes, garlic, and wheat. FODMAP intolerance can cause severe diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. It is also known to exacerbate Irritable Bowel Syndrome in people suffering from the condition. 
  • Gluten: There are several groups of protein found in wheat products, and from grains like rye belonging to the wheat family. Gluten intolerance results in unpleasant symptoms like constipation, hives, diarrhea, anxiety, nausea, and severe bloating. The intolerance results from the body’s incapability to break down gluten in the small intestine. Gluten intolerance can also result in a serious condition called Celiac Disease. The condition involves the immune system attacking the small intestine while trying to break down gluten. There also exists Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, which is not as serious as the former.  
  • Eggs: Egg whites contain certain proteins called albumins. These proteins can cause both allergies and intolerances in susceptible individuals. Intolerance to eggs is becoming more common in children over time. This is a matter of concern for parents and nutritionists alike. Intolerance to egg proteins causes symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, malaise, and uneasiness. 
  • Nuts: Nuts contain a few complex proteins and fats that are not tolerated by certain individuals. A lot of the time, the same proteins are also responsible for nut allergies. Most food intolerances caused by nuts result in bloating, constipation, hives, and difficulty in breathing. The symptoms can be serious and require medical attention at the earliest. 
  • Soy: Soy contains several complex proteins, however, the ones causing sensitivities are legumin and vicillin. Soy intolerance can result in severe abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence and nausea. People with soy intolerance might also be predisposed to other legume-related intolerances. The condition is best avoided by removing soy from the diet. 
  • Food Additives & Preservatives: Several food additives and preservatives like dietary sulfites, amines, curing agents, sugar substitutes like aspartame, MSG, and food coloring can cause food intolerance. These are commonly found in fermented beverages, packaged food, canned food, cured meats, dried and processed nuts, and dairy. The symptoms include hives, diarrhea, bloating, and nausea. 
  • Caffeine: Caffeine intolerance results due to the body having a low tolerance to normal amounts of caffeine in the diet. Regular adults consume between 350-400mg of caffeine every day. However, those with sensitivity begin experiencing symptoms of caffeine overdose at lower quantities. The symptoms include anxiety, palpitations, nervousness, profuse sweating, and tremors. 
  • Yeast: Although less common compared to others on the list and yeast-induced allergy, yeast intolerance can result in unpleasant digestive symptoms. Commonly experienced symptoms are incessant flatus, constipation, bloating, and nausea.

The best way to avoid suffering the symptoms of food sensitivities is to avoid the causative agent. If available, you can use a substitute to make up for lost nutrition. Your doctor and nutritionist can help with a modified diet that doesn’t involve foods causing sensitivity. We look at various methods of testing for food sensitivities later in the article. 

common food intolerances

Food Sensitivities and Weight Gain

Food sensitivities are some of the most ignored drivers of weight gain in several individuals. Food sensitivities over a prolonged period can whip up sustained reactions from the immune system. Since a lot of food sensitivities also cause delayed responses in the body, the immune system is busy causing inflammation to protect against what it considers threats. Prolonged inflammation is one of the major causes of weight gain in people suffering from food sensitivity. 

Remaining in a sustained period of inflammation puts the body in a state of stress. Stress results in the production of a steroid hormone called cortisol. The hormone is produced by the adrenal gland and tries to reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system. However, cortisol also is a major cause of weight gain. Cortisol makes your body’s cells more resistant to insulin and also raises blood sugar levels. This also means prolonged and unaddressed food sensitivities can result in type-2 diabetes. While food sensitivities result in a stress-related response, stress and anxiety can precipitate food sensitivities too, making it a vicious cycle. Read on to know more about food sensitivities and anxiety.

Food Sensitivities and Anxiety

A major symptom caused by food sensitivity is anxiety. A lot of food components like lactose, caffeine, gluten, soy, or additives can cause extreme amounts of uneasiness and anxiety. Certain foods also cause palpitations, rapid heart rate, and frequent belching, precipitating anxiety. Food sensitivity and anxiety have a two-way relationship. Studies have shown prevailing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression result in adverse reactions in the gut. This means the digestive tract has an integral relationship with your mood swings, mental balance, and general mental well-being. Food sensitivities caused by anxiety and depression eventually turn into a vicious cycle where the sensitivity in-turn fuels anxiety due to the symptoms it causes. Be sure to get a complete physical examination in case you’re feeling particularly anxious or under the weather, along with a consultation with a mental health professional. 

How To Test For Food Sensitivities? 

Testing for food sensitivities might involve several tests depending on the extent of the problem, the symptoms you’ve been feeling, the nature of the sensitivity, and your medical history. A prevalent family history of the problem also narrows down the diagnostic range and the possible culprits. Testing for food sensitivities begins with a detailed physical examination, including a detailed health history. You could either be allergic, sensitive, or intolerant to certain foods. Based on the nature of the sensitivity, your doctor might suggest the following tests - 

  • Elimination Diet Tests: This test involves removing a few possible causative agents from your diet for a period of up to two weeks. Following the elimination period, you will be required to add the foods back into your diet, albeit one at a time. If you begin experiencing symptoms after adding a particular item, it is likely the culprit. However, elimination diets aren’t specific enough and cannot be used in patients prone to hypersensitivity reactions like anaphylaxis. 
  • Oral Challenge Tests: These tests are used in combination with elimination diet tests to detect the food causing sensitivity. This test involves having small quantities of suspect foods that were identified in the elimination diet test. The quantity of the suspect foods is increased progressively until it elicits a reaction. If a certain food results in symptoms, it likely means it is the problem and can be removed from your diet. 
  • Blood Tests: Your doctor might recommend blood tests including complete blood counts and IgE tests to detect delayed immune reactions and allergic reactions caused by food. These tests can be carried out for both food sensitivities and for allergies. 
  • Chemistries & Specific Tests: Testing for food sensitivities might involve testing for particular cells and their presence in the bloodstream. These are advanced blood tests and can include tests that look for specific antibodies the body creates against certain foods. 
  • Muscle Response Test: This test is performed in the doctor’s office where you’re given a vial containing a suspected food antigen to hold. While you hold the vial in one hand, you’re expected to extend the other arm and the doctor attempts to push the extended arm down. If your arm is pushed down easily, it indicates sensitivity. 
  • Skin Test: Though these tests are usually performed for food allergies, they might also provide insight into certain sensitivities with an immune component. The test involves injecting small amounts of suspected food antigens under the skin and waiting for a reaction. The presence of a rash or an eruption at the site of injection indicates possible sensitivity. 

how to test for food sensitivities

Food sensitivities are misunderstood despite being such a ubiquitous problem for a large part of the population. They affect all walks of life ranging from weight to mental health. If you suspect a food sensitivity, be sure to contact your healthcare provider to find a solution fit for you.