Nowadays, more people than ever are certain that they have food intolerances—but with so many possible symptoms, triggers, and outcomes, how can you be sure that your dietary choices are really causing your problems?
We asked Dr Gill Hart, intolerance expert and Scientific Director at YorkTest Laboratories to give us the low down on working out if your guts hate gluten or you're out of luck with lactose.
1. Learn the difference
"Around 45% of people have a food intolerance, whereas food allergy is quite rare, affecting around 2% of people. They're often confused, but the ways that they affect you are very different," explains Gill.
"An allergy will cause an immediate reaction as the body tries to fight off the food or drink ingredient it mistakenly considers to be invading it"—think sudden changes like swollen lips, trouble breathing or vomiting. "Intolerances, on the other hand, are much more difficult to identify and usually involve a delayed biological reaction which, although often uncomfortable, is not life threatening," she says.
Those with allergies should seek medical help straight away, but if you have an intolerance, you may find that you experience problems for several days after consuming your trigger food. This is part of what makes intolerance so difficult to diagnose—unless you're in the habit of keeping a super-strict food diary, it's hard enough to remember what you had for dinner last night, let alone last week.
2. Know the symptoms
Typical symptoms of food intolerances include IBS, bloating, headaches, migraines, tiredness, low mood, weight gain, anxiety, and skin irritation—but these symptoms can all be attributed to a ton of other health conditions too, so you shouldn't automatically assume that your food choices are to blame.
"If you suffer from symptoms such as IBS, bloating, low energy, digestive distress and related complaints, you should always go and get checked out by your doctor first, without delay," Gill advises. It does make sense to mention to your GP that you think intolerance might be behind your complaints, and keep record of any foods or substances that seem to be at the root of the problem.
However, it's still crucial that you get checked out for any other underlying issues to make sure you're definitely getting the right care for your needs. After all, there's no point treating intolerance if you're actually dealing with something completely different.
3. Rethink your lifestyle
"There are many different things that can contribute to food intolerance: stress, use of antibiotics or medication, drinking excess alcohol and eating a lot of processed foods," Gill says. These factors all have an impact on many areas of health, but in particular can make your food intolerance symptoms worse.
Making positive changes like eating a fresh, healthy diet, cutting down on the booze (soz) and managing your stress levels could reduce them dramatically. And even if that's not the case for you and your symptoms continue, making these improvements will benefit your body in the long-run regardless, so it can't hurt to give it a try.
4. Listen to YOUR body
Let's make this v. clear—just because your friends are intolerant to a certain substance, it doesn't mean you are too, even if you suffer the exact same symptoms. Every single body reacts to certain ingredients differently—according to Gill, people with food intolerances tend to react to between four and six ingredients, but it's so important not to generalise or assume that sharing symptoms means you have the same intolerances.
Your food intolerance triggers are as unique as your DNA, and the most common causes may not correspond with yours. "The rise in interest around food intolerances has led to confusion around trigger foods and a surge in people self-diagnosing, which can lead to people eliminating foods from their diet unnecessarily," she adds. "Eliminating foods is a timely and tricky process—if you try and start from scratch it is virtually impossible to accurately pinpoint what foods might be causing the issues, and in my experience, people who have self-diagnosed often discover that the problem foods aren't the ones they thought."
5. Take a (reputable) test
If you've seen your doctor and you're still none the wiser, you can take an independent intolerance test; but don't be fooled into taking one that's not actually as accurate as it seems. "Many have no basis in science—for example, while hair analysis is used in forensic medicine it has no reliable scientific grounding in the field of food intolerance. Vega testing is also unproven for food intolerances," warns Gill.
"People should be wary and use a reputable, accredited company." She recommends YorkTest, which uses a simple pin-prick blood test to help to figure out your triggers, as well as offering advice and support from nutritionists. Your digestive system can take weeks, even months to recover, but if you do have intolerance and it's possible to manage it, the hard work and relief are totally worth the effort. You may even find that once your body has 'reset' itself, you can enjoy some of your trigger foods without a reaction—oh hey there, burger with a bun!
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.