What is a food sensitivity and how to know if you have one 

January 2024 

Food sensitivities are on the rise, with an estimated 1 in 5 people having some form of food intolerance. 

Food sensitivity is when you have a bad reaction to a food that is otherwise safe for everyone else to eat. Food sensitivities or intolerances primarily impact the digestive system, though they can also manifest in skin or respiratory issues such as rashes or a stuffy nose. When you have a food sensitivity, it means your digestive system has a hard time breaking down a particular food.

Unlike food allergies, food sensitivities aren’t life-threatening. If you live with a food sensitivity, you aren't required to restrict your diet as severely as you would with a food allergy. However, food sensitivities can still be problematic for those affected. You can have a food sensitivity for many years and not know, because symptoms don’t appear immediately. Gluten and lactose are probably the best-known triggers of food sensitivities. 

Food sensitivities can cause unwanted and unpleasant symptoms such as:

  • Flushed skin or rashes
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Stomach pain or feeling bloated
  • Brain fog
  • Itching
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhoea
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Acid reflux/heartburn
  • Irritability or anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Excess gas
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort

If you notice certain symptoms on a regular basis like those listed above and you do not know what other factors may be causing them, you might have a food sensitivity. Since symptoms can wait to show up until a few days after consumption, it can be challenging and time-consuming to identify which foods might be causing your symptoms. That’s why for many, food sensitivities go largely unrecognised or misdiagnosed.

The gold standard for diagnosing food sensitivities is the elimination diet, where you remove certain foods from your diet for periods of two to four weeks, and then slowly reintroduce one food at a time to see if your symptoms come back. Your doctor can provide guidance for undertaking an elimination diet and can help determine what might be causing your symptoms. 

A blood test, organised by your doctor, can also help determine whether you are allergic to specific foods, by measuring the amounts of certain antibodies in your blood. Commercial companies offer a similar blood test in the form of a home test kit. However, it is difficult to give an accurate diagnosis without your full clinical history, and experts are divided on the accuracy of the results, so they are not recommended. 

You can also keep a food journal that details the foods you eat, how you feel and any reactions. By keeping track of all these factors, you'll be able to notice patterns in the foods you eat and the symptoms you have. 

Once detected, food sensitivities are best managed with some lifestyle changes supported by a nutritional expert:

Tailor your diet: Work with your doctor or dietician to eliminate your trigger foods and adapt your diet to ensure you get enough nutrients.  

Always read food labels: When food shopping or cooking, it's important to carefully read nutritional labels.

Cook at home: Cooking at home is a great way to manage your food sensitivities as you’re in control of the ingredients in your food and you can ensure that your meals are free from trigger foods. 

Eat a balanced diet: Eat plenty of whole foods, vegetables and fibre, and reduce your intake of processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt.

Be cautious when dining out: You may accidentally consume triggering foods at restaurants without realising it. It’s always a good idea to let restaurant staff know about your dietary requirements before you order. 

If you suspect that you may be sensitive to a certain food or food additive, speak to your doctor or dietitian about testing and treatment options.

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