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Diet & Nutrition

The 8 Most Common Food Intolerances

7 Mins read

Food intolerances are more common than you might think. Though not as dangerous (or potentially life-threatening) as a food allergy, even the most common food intolerances can be seriously uncomfortable and problematic for those affected.

Currently, about 20% of the world’s population has food intolerance, from lactose or gluten intolerance to problems with FODMAPs. These intolerances can impact your health in a variety of different ways, from causing stomach pain, to making it impossible to digest food correctly.

Understanding the most common food intolerances and their symptoms will help you make better decisions about your diet.

The Most Common Food Intolerances

Food intolerance is a hypersensitivity to a specific ingredient or substance in a food. Intolerances cause your body to respond negatively to the presence of a certain food in a range of different ways. For instance, you might break out in a rash when you eat a certain food, get stomach pain, or become uncomfortably bloated

Food sensitivities are on the rise in a world where we’re eating more processed foods. However, while people might notice themselves not feeling comfortable after eating a certain food, they may not know they have an intolerance. Common symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Headaches
  • Rashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Skin flushing
  • Acid reflux

Because the symptoms of food intolerance are somewhat vague, the easiest way to diagnose this condition is with an elimination diet. Elimination diets involve removing certain foods commonly linked with intolerances from the diet to see whether symptoms subside.

Below are the most common food intolerances to be aware of.

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1. Dairy (Lactose)

Lactose is a sugar found in dairy and milk products. About 68% of the world’s population has some form of lactose malabsorption. Unfortunately, a very small percentage of these people actually know what’s going on with their diet.

Lactose intolerance is caused by a shortage in the lactase enzymes, which cause an inability to digest lactose and results in digestive symptoms. Symptoms of lactose intolerance usually include abdominal cramps, bloating, gas, diarrhoea, and nausea.

The symptoms can either be extremely subtle or severe, depending on the extent of your issues. You can have this condition diagnosed through a PH test from your stool, breath test, or a blood test. You may even be able to detect an insensitivity to lactose in your genetics with a DNA test.

If you think you might have a problem digesting lactose products, like milk and ice cream, you can begin avoiding dairy products. Fermented products like kefir can sometimes be easier for people with lactose intolerance to handle.

2. Salicylates

Salicylates are natural chemicals produced by plants as a defence against environmental stressors like insects and disease. Although natural and even beneficial to some people (thanks to anti-inflammatory properties), they’re also a potential cause of intolerance symptoms.

You can find salicylates in a range of substances, such as vegetables, fruits, coffees, nuts, spices, teas, and honey. Aside from being a natural component of various foods, salicylates are often used as a preservative inv various medications too.

In general, consuming small amounts of salicylates shouldn’t cause any problems to your health. However, if you have a sensitivity, you might notice unusual symptoms after consuming certain products. Common problems include:

  • A stuffy nose
  • Sinus infections
  • Asthma
  • Nasal polyps (or sinus polyps)
  • Diarrhea and inflammation in the gut
  • Hives and itching

It’s almost impossible to remove salicylates from your diet completely, so if you do have this kind of sensitivity, you may have to avoid foods particularly high in salicylates, such as coffee, spices, oranges, and raisins. Certain cosmetics and medications may be problematic too.

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3. Caffeine

Caffeine is bitter, but energizing chemical found in a range of substances, from chocolate and coffee to energy drinks and tea. As a stimulant, caffeine reduces fatigue and increases alertness when you consume it. The process works by blocking adenosine receptors, which would otherwise cause drowsiness.

The majority of adults can consume up to 400mg of caffeine each day without side effects. This is about the same amount of caffeine you’d get in four cups of coffee. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. This hypersensitivity to caffeine has been linked to genetics, and a reduced ability to excrete or metabolize caffeine correctly.

If you’re sensitive to caffeine, this could mean you’re more likely to experience symptoms after having just a small amount of the stimulant. You might notice high feelings of anxiety, nervousness, or restlessness, or struggle to fall asleep, hours after a cup of coffee.

If you’re sensitive to caffeine, you should minimize your intake by avoiding foods and beverages which contain caffeine.

4. Yeast

Around one in three people have a yeast allergy. However, if you don’t have an allergic response to yeast, but instead don’t feel very well after consuming various yeast-based products, this could be a sign of intolerance. Yeast intolerance issues cause symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating.

You may also notice issues with skin complaints, like eczema or hives, and weight gain. Some people with yeast problems also have issues with tiredness and fatigue.

Notably, having a yeast intolerance isn’t the same as being intolerant to alcohol – which is far less common. However, you may need to avoid certain forms of alcohol as they can contain yeast (like beer). You might also need to stay away from substances like baked goods and condiments.

5. Gluten

Gluten is the name typically given to proteins found in barley, rye, wheat, and triticale. Several conditions are related to gluten, including non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and celiac disease. Celiac disease is defined by an immune system response.

Wheat allergies are commonly confused with celiac disease due to similar symptoms. However, allergies generate allergy-producing antibodies to specific proteins in wheat, while celiac disease is caused by abnormal immune system responses.

If you have neither a wheat allergy nor celiac disease, but still have symptoms like bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, and abdominal pains, you may have gluten sensitivity. This is a mild form of gluten intolerance that impacts up to 13% of the population.

Gluten sensitivity can also cause symptoms like joint pain and skin rash, depression, anxiety, or anaemia. Like most intolerances in the dietary world, your doctor will advise treating gluten sensitivity with a gluten-free diet, which avoids crackers, beer, bread, cereals, pasta, and similar substances.

6. Amines

Sensitivities to additives in foods are growing increasingly common. Amines are produced by bacteria during the food storage and fermentation process. Found in a range of foods, perhaps the best-known form of amine is “histamine”, a substance that plays a role in managing the nervous, digestive, and immune systems.

Amines like histamine are actually valuable for the body. These substances help to protect the body from infection by creating inflammatory responses like itching and sneezing to remove invaders. In people without an intolerance, The most common reason for histamine intolerance is an impaired function of the enzymes responsible for breaking down histamine.

The substances which break down histamine are diamine oxidase and N-methyltransferase. If you’re deficient in these enzymes, or they don’t operate correctly in your system, they may lead to intolerance issues like flushing, headaches, anxiety, stomach cramps, hives, and low blood pressure.

If you have an intolerance to histamine, try to avoid foods naturally high in the chemical, such as cured meats, fermented foods, dried and citrus fruits, or avocados. Sometimes, smoked fish, aged cheeses, and soured foods like buttermilk will include amines too.

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7. Eggs

Just as people can be allergic to eggs, they can be intolerant to them too. Intolerances to eggs can contribute to various skin conditions like eczema, as well as symptoms like bowel variability, wind, and bloating. If you have an egg intolerance, your body might react to various parts of the food, including the yolk, white, or both.

People with egg intolerances will often suffer from digestive complaints and skin conditions, even when simply consuming foods with egg as an ingredient. You may also experience:

  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Anxiety and irritability
  • Respiratory issues (like sinusitis)
  • Severe migraines and headaches

If you think you may have an egg intolerance, avoid all foods made with egg as an ingredient. You can consider looking at other foods to replace some of the essential vitamins and proteins you’ll be missing out on with eggs too. For instance, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes are great for giving you an extra dose of vitamins A, B, D and E.

8. FODMAPs (Fructose)

FODMAPs is an abbreviation for fermentable oligo-, di, monosaccharides and polyols. Absorbed by the small intestine and transferred to the large intestine, FODMAPs can act as fuel for the gut bacteria in the stomach. The bacteria break down and ferment the FODMAPs, which produces discomfort and bloating, as well as gas and abdominal pain.

There are various different FODMAPs, and a number of foods particularly high in these substances, including soft cheeses, apples, bread, lentils, milk, and artichokes.

Perhaps the most common kind of FODMAP to cause intolerance is fructose – a kind of simple sugar common in fruits and vegetables. The consumption of fructose from sweetened beverages is higher than ever, and it could be linked to issues like heart disease and obesity.

If you have fructose intolerance, you may struggle to absorb the substance into your blood correctly, which means it travels to the intestine and becomes fermented there, causing abdominal distress and pain.

Coping with Food Intolerances

The number of potential food intolerances you might encounter during your life is surprisingly high. Some people struggle with things like aspartame, an artificial sweetener commonly used as sugar. Others have intolerances to certain food colourings, such as red 40 or yellow 5.

Ultimately, the more you know about your dietary intolerances, the easier it is to protect yourself from negative side effects and discomforts. Although food intolerances aren’t as dangerous as allergies, they still trigger the body to respond in uncomfortable ways.

Many people are intolerant or hypersensitive to additives, which might mean you need to focus on eating healthier, more natural foods to feel your best. 

A CircleDNA test includes diet and nutrition reports that offer insight into what foods you might be genetically more likely to be sensitive to. This, in combination with a blood test, could help you figure out what to remove from your diet.

Rebekah Carter
68 posts

About author
Rebekah is a committed copywriter and freelance content producer with a history in the technology, marketing, and health sectors. She’s worked with leading brands around the world, and is constantly searching for new ways to expand her knowledge, and skills.
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