A food intolerance is a hypersensitive reaction to an element in food, such as lactose and fructose. In the case of a food intolerance, there is often a problem in the breakdown of food and with digestion. This may be due to the fact that there is a deficiency of a certain enzyme or an enzyme is completely missing. Normally, carbohydrates, fats and proteins are broken down in the small intestine. If your digestion is not working adequately, these nutrients end up in your large intestine. There, the intestinal bacteria take care of the breakdown of these nutrients. The problem is that this so-called ‘fermentation’ process often releases gas and moisture which causes unpleasant intestinal problems.
The umbrella term for food allergy and food intolerance is ‘food hypersensitivity’. There is a clear difference: with an allergy there is an overreaction from the immune system to certain ingredients in your food, causing an allergic reaction. For example, the body makes antibodies against gluten, cow’s milk or nuts. An intolerance does not involve the immune system, but is due to the fact that there is a problem with the breakdown of certain components in your diet. We call a food allergy an allergic food hypersensitivity and an intolerance a non-allergic food hypersensitivity.
By far, the most common intolerance is to lactose, a milk sugar found particularly in dairy products. In addition to a lactose intolerance, fructose intolerance and fructan- and galactan-intolerances are also common.
It is not always known what exactly causes food intolerances. In many cases there is an enzyme problem, whereby there is a deficiency of a certain enzyme in the small intestine or the complete absence of an enzyme. An intolerance can also be caused by a malfunctioning transport mechanism that makes it difficult for certain foods to pass the intestinal wall. This is the case, for example, with fructose intolerance.
Absorption of certain nutrients can sometimes be difficult or even impossible through the intestinal wall. We call this: Malabsorption. An enzyme or absorption problem can occur acutely, for example, due to an intestinal infection or intestinal surgery. It can also develop progressively and worsen with age. Certain types of intolerances can also be genetic, such as congenital lactose intolerance or sucrose intolerance (CSID).
In most cases, a food intolerance is characterized by various intestinal symptoms that can be different in severity from person to person. The most common complaints and symptoms of a food intolerance are:
- Abdominal pain
- A bloated belly
- Constipation (obstipation)
- Intestinal cramps
If you have symptoms that you are unsure about contact a doctor or dietitian.
There is no medicine to treat a food intolerance. However, you can improve or limit the symptoms by adjusting your diet or by using tools, such as supplements.
If you know that you are sensitive to a certain food ingredient, such as lactose or fructose, there are steps you can take to manage this sensitivity. Depending on the degree of intolerance, you can completely eliminate or limit foods that contain such a component. For example, there are lactose-free diets and diets with a limited amount of lactose.
A dietitian can help you put together a suitable diet so that you can have a full diet despite an intolerance. A dietitian can also help you find alternative foods, such as lactose-free or plant-based products in the case of a lactose-free diet. Dietary solutions can make an important difference in reducing or eliminating the symptoms of food intolerance.
If you know which food components you are intolerant to, you can take supplements with digestive enzymes. These help you to properly digest the components in food to which you are intolerant. If you don’t want to or can’t stick to your lactose-free diet, capsules with the lactase enzyme can help. This allows you to eat or drink food with lactose without experiencing unpleasant symptoms.
For most intolerances there are supplements available. The supplements vary in type, size and doses. There are also combination supplements that contain multiple enzymes that you can use if you suffer from different intolerances.
Fortunately, there is a very good way to live with a food intolerance. In addition to dietary solutions and the use of supplements, there are two more ways to make life with a food intolerance a little easier.
It is recommended that you get help from a health professional. This can be a doctor, but dietitians are often more specialized in the counselling and treating of food intolerances. They can help you with customized advice on foods that you can tolerate. In addition, they can advise you on supplements and other tools. This way you are less limited in the foods you can eat and you do not have to go through life with intestinal problems anymore. So ask for help!
There are many people with food intolerances who are in the same situation as you. By sharing tips and inspiration with each other, you can make life with a food intolerance a little easier and more fun, both for you and for the other person. A number of bloggers write useful articles from their own experience, in which they share tips that you can benefit from. We highly recommend the blogs of Karlijn’s Kitchen. You can also get in touch with others in the community via social media and learn more about how others cope with their food intolerance in everyday life.
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At least 1in 10 people suffers from a food intolerance. There are different types of food intolerances, such as lactose, fructose or histamine-intolerance. Learn more about food intolerances on our intolerances pages below.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. FODMAPs are carbohydrates (saccharides) that are poorly absorbed or not absorbed at all in the small…
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