With an increasing number of individuals ‘self-diagnosing’ allergies and intolerances to foods such as wheat and milk, it can often be confusing to really know what to include in your diet. Mixed messages can result in people commonly cutting out entire food groups including grains and dairy. Not only is this difficult to follow (and possibly unnecessary), it may also result in nutrient deficiencies if not undertaken with care.
Allergy or intolerance?
It is important to distinguish between an allergy and intolerance, as they produce very different types of reactions in the body and are often, incorrectly, used interchangeably. An allergy is an immediate immune reaction (in severe cases potentially quite dangerous) in which your body reacts to the protein in a particular food as a foreign threat. By trying to defend itself, it causes a release of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine. The result can be a range of symptoms such as a rash on your skin, a swollen throat, diarrhoea or anaphylaxis. ‘Intolerance’ to a food is very different, and generally less severe, with delayed symptoms such as bloating and headaches.
Foods such as shellfish, eggs and nuts are common allergens. Wheat and milk are also fairly common allergens, however they are more commonly experienced as intolerances. If you have a true allergy, you will most likely know about it, or at least be aware that something is disagreeing quite strongly with you.
Step 1: Identify your allergens
The most important initial step in dealing with allergies is to identify what you are allergic to. It may seem like an obvious statement, but so many people have allergy-related conditions such as eczema and asthma, but are unaware of what they are reacting to when their symptoms worsen.
Methods for detecting an allergy vary in ease and accuracy. Skin-prick testing is one of the most common methods used by GPs, consisting of a small amount of allergen applied to the skin via needle pricks, and observation of a localized allergic response of a red raised inflamed area. Skin-prick tests can be useful in identifying allergens, however they do often indicate an allergy when there isn’t one (false positive), and can also sometimes not result in a skin reaction even when you are allergic (false negative). For a more accurate identification of allergens, a blood test can be carried out to measure the antibodies that are reacting to the allergens and the level of inflammatory chemicals in your blood.
The most accurate way of identifying an allergen is by carrying out a food elimination diet. This method can simply involve cutting out one or two suspected foods and keeping note of symptoms. In cases when there is no suspected allergen, an elimination diet may start with eating only very simple foods that are rarely allergens such as rice, lamb and pears, and gradually introduce different foods every few days until symptoms occur. An elimination diet should always be carried out under the supervision of a qualified nutritionist or dietician to ensure adequate nutrition is obtained from the diet.
As foods are not always the cause of immune reactions, it must not be forgotten that inhalant allergens also exist, such as dust and animal dander. Also, preservatives, cleaning products and cosmetics can cause allergic reactions. Allergens are therefore sometimes very difficult to identify. Blood tests can also pick up on inhalant allergens.
Find healthy alternative foods to include in your diet
If you find out that you are allergic only to a type of food, such as peanuts, it should be fairly straightforward to avoid this food as long as you read food labels carefully and be sure to let food providers know when eating out.
If you are allergic to something that is present in many types of food, such as milk or wheat, you may have a few more difficulties. Here is a list of some milk and wheat alternatives to consider.
Alternatives to cow’s milk
Milk allergies result from a reaction to one of the proteins in milk such as casein or whey. Milk powders are added to
many foods such as breads and other baked goods, so check labels. Try alternative milks such as almond, oat, rice and hazelnut milk (not a hardship as these are quite delicious as well as nutritious in themselves!). Rice milk is the least allergenic of these, so consider starting with this if other allergies are suspected.
Alternatives to wheat
Wheat is present in many foods including bread and pasta, and is often added to sauces as a thickener. Try other grains
such as spelt, barley, rye, rice, amaranth, millet, buckwheat and oats. Wheat free bread, cereals and pasta alternatives are also available in shops.
How to reduce the severity of allergies
Many children grow out of their allergies by the age of 5, however if you still have an allergy as an adult, and you avoid the food as much as possible, or if you have not yet identified allergens, there are ways in which you can reduce the amount of inflammation in your body to reduce your symptoms when an allergic reaction occurs.
To reduce the production of histamine, follow an anti inflammatory diet, including foods rich in antioxidants such as brightly coloured vegetables. Quercetin found at high doses in foods such as capers, red onions, watercress and other fruits and vegetables is a particularly effective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and may therefore help to reduce allergy symptoms. Also ensure that you are eating good amounts of essential fats from fish, nuts and seeds. Lastly, limit your intake of processed foods and sugar, as these foods will put more strain on your immune system.