A look at food intolerances, food sensitivities and how we need to look closer at our daily diet.
When it comes to American food culture, perhaps the very embodiment of our cuisine – Burger King – sums it up it best: have it your way. We can have Italian for lunch, Thai for dinner, super-sized, low fat, deep-fried or no onions. As a nation, our taste-buds are accustomed to choice.
However for an increasing number of individuals, having it their way means forgoing certain food groups altogether. According to various studies, the reported number of people with food allergies and intolerances to various food groups is on the rise.
Simultaneously, the growing popularity of elimination diets – such as those which cut out dairy, wheat, soy, corn, and/or sugar – is demonstrated by the appearance of gluten-free aisles in grocery stores and the ever-growing variety of Tetra-Pak cartons offering lactose-free milk substitutes.
It seems that only in a country with such an abundance of food, could people start forgoing certain food groups altogether. But is the popularity of elimination diets a function of marketing and a national obsession with weight loss? And why do food intolerances seem to be far more prevalent in the Western, developed nations where there is unlimited access to a wide array of food?
Roughly 30 percent of Americans believe they have a food allergy. According to registered dietician Tracy Stoker, this could be due to the fact that the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance or sensitivity is commonly misunderstood.
“I think elimination diets, if done carefully, are a good way to get an idea of a food sensitivity, intolerance and maybe even an allergy,” Stoker says. “A food allergy spells out a radical [and immediate] reaction like hives, swelling, even anaphylactic shock while intolerance means they don’t have the ability to break down the food so they may get something like diarrhea [if they eat it].”
Nowhere is the phenomenon of elimination diets manifested more than in the widespread avoidance of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In 2011, sales of gluten-free products reached more than $6.2 billion.
Many skeptics say that intolerance to gluten is a fad or trend motivated by a false hope of weight-loss. However, some experts estimate that in addition to the three million Americans who have the severe autoimmune disorder known as celiac disease, 18 million people in the U.S. are sensitive to gluten, a number that continues to grow.
Suzzanne Myer, a registered dietician who specializes in elimination diets, helps patients identify and eliminate the foods that she says cause a range of problems including anxiety, eczema, acne, sinus problems, IBS, asthma, and insomnia. She says her approach, which is somewhat at odds with the tenets of western medicine, is often overlooked.
“Western medicine did this thing where we now think, ‘Oh I’ll just take a pill to solve my problems,’” Myer says. “There needs to be more awareness [because] one in three people have a problem with gluten. We used to believe you either had celiac disease or you didn’t, but now we know it can be more like a threshold – you can just have a sensitivity.”
While a severe allergy or disease like celiac can show up in an allergen blood test, a minor insensitivity often does not. Angie Spinelli is a musician and blogger who has maintained a blog about her diet – which excludes most gluten, dairy, and sugar – since 2008.
After struggling with various health problems including acne and allergies, in 2005 Spinelli decided to try an elimination diet after doing her own research.
“When I was in my twenties, my diet was really awful – the ‘standard American diet’ – whatever was fast and cheap,” Spinelli says. “I went to so many dermatologists for my acne and none of them could do anything for me. None of them suggested cutting out dairy or wheat, which are the major triggers for me.”
After seeing major initial results from changing her diet, a subsequent blood allergy test showed that Spinelli did indeed have mild insensitivities. However, she says there are still skeptics who would reduce her dietary limitations as unnecessary.
“There are a number of people out there that believe that [gluten sensitivity] is a fad because it’s difficult to prove,” Spinelli says. “My blood antibody test did show mild level sensitivity but some allergists don’t even agree that that’s a true allergy.”
Despite the lack of research on the issue, elimination expert Myer believes it’s possible that people like Spinelli are more prone to have food insensitivities due to the nature of the Standard American Diet (SAD) and the high levels of stress that are so common in American society.
“Stress can cause problems just as much as food can, so can eating on the run and not eating whole foods,” Myer says. “The SAD may exacerbate our sensitivity to these foods. When you’re not giving your body enough nutrition to support all the things it needs to do, the gut – which is the largest active immune organ in the body – becomes more permeable, it allows more [unwanted] things to pass through into the blood stream.”
Myer says the effects of this phenomenon are seen more and more as people around the world begin to trade traditional, locally sourced diets for processed convenience foods.
“A lot of indigenous cultures’ diets had a lot of naturally occurring pre-biotics and pro-biotics and things that were healthy for them,” Myer says. “Then with the [exportation of the SAD], they are eating less of these things, and more things like white bread and soda pop, and we’re seeing more incidences of food intolerances or sensitivities.”
The fact that eliminating foods that contain gluten, sugar, and corn usually results in a diet that is less processed is perhaps why so many people connect elimination diets and weight loss. Spinelli, whose blog features recipes and advice on how to maintain her diet, doesn’t seem to feel limited by her new way of eating.
“In other parts of the world they eat real food and make their own food from scratch they don’t buy the kind of junk we do,” Spinelli says. “When I started the blog, I couldn’t find a lot of info out there from people that were avoiding gluten, dairy, and sugar so I just decided to do my own thing and tweak recipes myself. Now I cook from scratch as much as possible.”