What is Food Intolerance?

Food intolerances are the most common cause of digestive discomforts such as occasional gas, bloating and indigestion. But it’s important to note that food intolerances are different from food allergies.

A food intolerance means that the body has difficulty digesting a certain food and is sensitive to it, causing gas, bloating, nausea, diarrhea or stomach pain.

A food allergy affects the immune system, wherein the body believes that a certain food is harmful so the immune system responds with an allergic reaction that can cause rashes, hives and even anaphylaxis.

The cause of most food intolerances is an enzyme deficiency. Enzymes are the active proteins in our bodies that power all of our life functions. Digestive enzymes are produced by the body to digest different types of foods. There are hundreds of enzymes that each have a very specific job—and if you’re missing one of those enzymes, it can cause a food intolerance and make it difficult to digest certain foods.

If you’re experiencing any type of discomfort—such as occasional gas, bloating, irregularity or heartburn—when digesting food, you may have a food intolerance. Here’s a system to help you figure out if you have an intolerance.

Keep a food journal
Whenever you eat, take a moment to write down exactly what you’re eating. By creating a journal of meals you can see exactly when and what types of foods may be causing your digestive discomforts. This is also a great record to show to your dieticians or doctors.

The most important part of your food journal is writing down any discomforts that happen during or after your meal. Sometimes the symptoms of a food tolerance may not appear for a few hours, so be sure to make note of when these discomforts take place.

After a week, take a look at your journal and see if you notice any patterns. Do you usually feel nauseous an hour after eating dairy? Or does eating gluten soon leave you feeling bloated? By looking at a record of your eating habits, it may become clear what foods are triggering your symptoms. (Even if you don’t see a pattern right away, continue to use the journal, as it may take longer for a pattern to appear.)

Try an elimination diet
Once you’ve identified some potential foods that can cause discomfort, try an elimination diet. Since it can potentially take a few days for your body to fully digest food, eliminating the foods altogether for a period of time will ensure that none of that food is still in your body.

Start by removing all potential foods that you may not tolerate. For example, if gluten may be bothering you, steer clear of anything containing wheat, barley or rye for 3-5 days. Then slowly reintroduce it. Try eating small quantities of food with gluten in it, and be sure to try a variety of different types of gluten to see which affects you most. Continue to record your meals in your food journal so you have a record of what gives you a reaction and what doesn’t.

Here are some common foods that cause discomfort:

  • Lactose
  • Casein
  • Gluten
  • Fats
  • Beans/Broccoli
  • Vegetables
  • High phenol foods (Fruits, Nuts)

Repeat the process until you’ve tested and recorded all potential candidates. Did any foods definitely give you discomfort after reintroducing them? If yes, then you may have found the cause of your food intolerance. After targeting your level of tolerance, you can take steps to incorporate enzymes that help digest the food that cause you issues in order to help relieve your discomfort.

What if I still can’t find the cause?
Sometimes it can be difficult to completely avoid a certain food. Often, foods will contain a blend of different ingredients that may cause digestive discomforts. A pasta salad may have gluten, dairy, fiber, fat and beans in it—all foods that our bodies may not have the enzymes to digest. Cross-contamination of foods can also occur in places that produce multiple types of ingredients. Items we use on a regular basis may also contain the foods we’re intolerant to, as derivatives of a food can be found in items like cosmetics, soaps or medicines. This may make it difficult to pinpoint exactly what our trigger foods are.

Sometimes we are also intolerant to more than one food. You be deficient in more than one type of enzyme, and thus may be sensitive to multiple food categories. If you’re sick it can also make it more difficult for us to digest more than one type of food. And occasionally, you just can’t pinpoint what food is causing your discomfort.

But there is a natural solution. Look for a formula that blends a variety of different enzymes to help alleviate digestive discomfort associated with digesting problem foods like gluten, dairy, fats, beans, vegetables, casein and phenols. Also look for a formula that is active at multiple pH levels to target the entire digestive system. Even if you can’t figure out the exact cause of your food intolerance, multiple enzyme formulas can help you get back to comfortable digestion without gas, bloating or irregularity. I recommend Enzymedica Digest Spectrum.

Other digestive enzyme recommendations
Just because you have a food intolerance doesn’t mean you have to completely cut that food out of your diet, especially if you enjoy it. Look for vegetarian enzyme supplements that target your food intolerance and contain the essential enzymes for digestion like protease, lipase and amylase. You also want a formula that can work at every pH level in your body. Here are the enzymes to look for in supplements for different food intolerances. (I recommend Enzymedica’s full line of food intolerance supplements.)

  • Lactose Intolerance
    This is the most common intolerance nationally, and is caused by a deficiency of the enzyme lactase. Look for a formula that contains lactase, as well as protease to digest casein.

Tip: Lactose intolerance can also be caused by the dairy protein casein, so in order to see if you’re more sensitive to lactose or casein, try different types of dairy during your elimination diet. Butter is a dairy product that is lower in casein and is a good test food.

  • Gluten Intolerance
    Sensitivity to gluten is a known source of digestive discomfort. It’s caused by a deficiency of protease and other enzymes like DPP-IV. Look for a formula that contains protease and DPP-IV.

Tip: Using natural supplements for gluten intolerance is not intended to replace a gluten-free diet. For those with Celiac Disease, consult your doctor.

  • Carbohydrates
    Complex and simple carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods. Beans and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli are a common source of occasional gas for some people, while fibrous complex carbohydrates like the majority of vegetables may trigger others. Phenols are another category that are often found in fruits, nuts and grains.  Look for formulas that are high in alpha galactosidase to better digest carbohydrates.  There are also formulas that contain alpha galactosidase and other enzymes that specifically target beans, vegetables or phenols.

Tip: Carbohydrates cover a big category, so look for a formula specifically targeted to the carbohydrate that bothers you. These types of enzyme supplements are ideal for vegan, vegetarian or raw diets.