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When a meal doesn’t sit well with your body, you may have unpleasant symptoms. Worse yet, you may not even know what exactly caused them.

Food intolerance is a condition that impacts up to 20% of the population. It results from the difficulty of digesting certain foods. Those with food intolerances often experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and/or fatigue.

While food intolerances vary widely, they can make you feel unwell even hours after you’ve eaten, disrupting your busy schedule. In children, food intolerances can put a damper on your kid’s energy and performance at school. Because it’s tricky to pinpoint which food is causing the problem, you may continue to suffer from symptoms. At Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center, we encourage getting food intolerances evaluated.


What is a Food Intolerance?

Food intolerance is sensitivity to a certain food that results in a range of bowel symptoms. These symptoms are often gradual in onset, occurring hours after eating the problematic food. Typically, you must ingest a sufficient amount of this food for symptoms to occur.

It is important to note that unlike food allergies, food intolerances are not life-threatening. Food intolerance is not a reaction from your immune system, but rather results from digestion. It’s characterized by slow onset and general feelings of being unwell.

Important note: If you have severe, immediate symptoms and suspect an allergic reaction or food poisoning, you should seek urgent medical attention.

Food Intolerance vs. Food Allergy

Food intolerances and food allergies differ in several ways. To start, food allergies result from a reaction in your immune system. Basically, your body mistakenly fights off “harmless” substances, releasing chemicals that trigger allergy symptoms.

Food allergies can be life-threatening, even with ingestion of a small amount of the offending food. Symptoms are typically severe and immediate, including a rash or hives, shortness of breath, chest pain, etc.

On the other hand, a food intolerance involves digestion, not the immune system. This condition is never life-threatening, and symptoms typically set in hours after eating. You may experience a stomachache, diarrhea, nausea, and fatigue.

If you suspect you’re having an allergic reaction, seek urgent medical attention. For both food allergies and food intolerances, you should consult your doctor or allergist to identify the foods responsible for your symptoms.

Symptoms of Food Intolerance

While they vary according to the individual, some common symptoms of food intolerance include:

  • Stomachache
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas, cramps, or bloating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Headache
  • Runny nose/increased mucous production
  • Skin rash
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability

Because symptoms result from digestion, they may take a few hours or days to appear.

Causes of Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is typically caused by the absence of an enzyme that’s required to digest a food. This makes it difficult for the digestive tract to break down this food, resulting in poor digestion and bowel symptoms.

Food intolerance may be caused by a range of foods and substances. Some common ones include:

  • Lactose is a sugar found naturally in cow’s milk and other dairy products.
  • Fructose is a sugar found naturally in honey, fruits and some vegetables, and artificially in products with high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Gluten is a substance found in wheat, barley, oats and rye.
  • Salicylate is a substance commonly found in fruits, vegetables, spices, as well as non-food products like toothpaste.
  • Food additives include sulfites, sodium benzoate and food colorings. These substances may be found in dried fruit, canned goods, jams, wine and other foods.

Risk factors

You may be at greater risk of food intolerance if you’re stressed or have negative feelings about certain foods.

In addition, if you have celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or other digestive disorders, you may be more prone to having food sensitivities.

Diagnosing Food Intolerance

Food intolerances can be challenging to diagnose. Your doctor will likely ask about your symptoms and ask you to keep a food diary. With a food diary, you will take note of what you eat and any symptoms you have. This will help identify which food or substance you are sensitive to.

Once your doctor suspects you’re intolerant to a certain food, he/she may recommend an elimination diet to stop eating this food and see if your symptoms improve. Later, you might be able to reintroduce a food with little to no problem.

Finally, if your symptoms are immediate or severe, your doctor may want to rule out a food allergy. In this case, you may undergo testing to check if you’re allergic to certain foods.

Remember that there are no scientifically based food intolerance tests. To diagnose your symptoms, your doctor will have to work with you to identify the foods and reduce or eliminate them from your diet.

Why Choose the Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center

At Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center, we are dedicated to helping patients identify their allergies and sensitivities to aid in lifelong management.

Our board-certified physicians offer the highest standards of care so that patients can get to the bottom of their food reactions. After all, we’re the leading asthma and allergy practice in the region and we pride ourselves on improving patient quality of life. Contact our office for more information about our services.

Food Intolerance FAQs

Can you cure food intolerances?

No, you cannot cure food intolerances. However, you can manage symptoms by avoiding causative foods. You may also reduce your intolerance over time through an elimination diet.

Can a child outgrow food intolerance?

Yes, it’s possible to outgrow food intolerance – though it doesn’t always happen. Your doctor can monitor your food intolerance with the possibility of trying to reintroduce the food later.

Do food intolerances get worse with age?

Food intolerances certainly change over time, for better or for worse. Some people may outgrow food intolerances, while others may develop them. As our digestive system ages, it becomes more difficult to break down foods. However, this isn’t the same thing as developing a food intolerance.

How do you find out if you have a food intolerance?

To find out if you have a food intolerance, you should consult your doctor. He/she will rule out food allergies or digestive disorders, and work on resolving your symptoms by monitoring your diet.