Food allergies are on the rise. Here’s how to tell if you have one and how to cope with the symptoms
If you’re suffering from a rash, feeling a bit nauseous or your skin is itchy, you might put it down to being under the weather or stressed.
But could it be that you actually have a food allergy?
Cases of food allergies have doubled in the past decade, according to Allergy UK.
And in the past five years, there’s been a 19 per cent increase in the number of those having anaphylaxis, a severe reaction that can cause death.
Dr Tarlochan Toor, GP and co-founder of MedicSpot digital clinic, said allergies can affect more than one in four people in the UK during their lives, and that we can develop new ones.
He says: ‘Adults can develop surprise allergies to things they were not previously allergic to.’
Is it an allergy?
An allergy will trigger an immune system reaction that affects vital organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms.
For example, if you are allergic to a specific ingredient or type of food, you may experience vomiting and diarrhoea.
You can also suffer from red and itchy, watering eyes, shortness of breath, stomach ache, swollen lips, tongue, eyes or face.
‘Most allergic reactions are mild and can be largely kept under control,’ Dr Toor says.
But in rare cases, an allergy can lead to a severe reaction, called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock, which can be life-threatening.
This affects the whole body and usually develops within minutes of exposure to something you’re allergic to.
Signs of anaphylaxis include any of the above symptoms plus swelling of the throat and mouth, difficulty breathing, confusion, collapsing and losing consciousness.
If someone is suffering from these symptoms, call an ambulance immediately.
Anaphylaxis is treated with injectable adrenaline, and people considered to be at high risk may be advised to carry an EpiPen.
Allergy or intolerance?
It’s thought that one to two per cent of adults and five to eight per cent of children have a true food allergy, according to the Food Standards Agency.
So around two million people in the UK have a food allergy.
That doesn’t include those with food intolerances.
Hannah Braye, nutritional therapist for Bio-Kult, says: ‘In a true allergy the offending substance or food should be avoided entirely, whereas with intolerances, foods may be tolerated in low amounts.’
A food intolerance has less serious symptoms, which are often related to the digestive system.
Testing for allergies
Dr Toor says: ‘Do not try to test yourself for the allergy. See your doctor, who may carry out patch testing to find out what you might be allergic to, in a controlled way.’
He also suggests avoiding the suspected allergen in case of anaphylaxis.
Keeping a food diary is one way to help your doctor identify a potential allergy, he says.
But, he adds that if you suspect it’s an intolerance, there’s no reliable way to confirm this, unless it’s a lactose intolerance.
You can have a blood test to measure your immune system’s reaction to allergens, or a skin-prick test, where you are exposed to a small amount of proteins found in allergens.
But Hannah Braye says the results are not always reliable.
Be careful when cutting out food groups to make sure that you are still getting the nutrients you need.
Allergens and alternatives
Hannah Braye says: ‘The most common food allergies are reactions to gluten, and wheat-containing grains, milk products, eggs, soy, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, but there are many others. Some people cannot tolerate certain fruit, vegetables, nuts and spices due to an allergy to pollen residue left on them.’
But there are simple food swaps you can make.
Nuts and seeds A nut allergy can be extremely severe and likely to cause anaphylaxis.
Many products may have come into contact with nuts during manufacturing, so need to be avoided. Check labels carefully.
Nuts provide good fats, and are a great source of protein.
Dr Toor says: ‘If you have nut intolerance you can supplement your diet with alternatives, such as olives, avocado and seeds, all of which contain good fats.’
Dairy Allergy or intolerance to dairy products may leave you deficient in important nutrients.
Milk contains vitamin B12, magnesium, phosphorous and calcium, which plays a vital role in building and maintaining strong bones and teeth.
Dr Toor says: ‘Adults need up to 1000mg of calcium per day. This can be achieved through eating whole grains, pulses and green leafy vegetables. Look out for foods fortified with calcium.’
It is also vital to receive enough vitamin D, which plays a key role in transporting calcium to your bones.
Eggs Eggs are full of nutrients and vitamins, including iron, biotin, folacin, riboflavin, vitamins A, D, E, B12, and are an excellent source of protein.
Dr Toor says: ‘A balanced diet with lean meats, poultry and fish can help to make up for the loss in protein along with legumes and dairy.’
Eat plenty of wholefoods, fruit, vegetables and leafy greens and enriched grains for essential nutrients and vitamins.
Fish and shellfish These provide omega-3 fats which keep the heart healthy.
Fish also contains vitamin D, and shellfish provides selenium, zinc, iodine and copper.
If you are allergic it will be to certain types, so choose the others to enjoy those benefits.
Avoid fish supplements. Eat walnuts, flaxseeds and rapeseed oil which contain omega-3.
Wheat When removing wheat from your diet, make sure that you are still getting enough fibre and calories, as well as vitamins and minerals such as B1, B3, iron and calcium, which are used to fortify wheat flour.
Hannah says: ‘Avoid processed products marketed as gluten-free, which tend to be high in sugar and additives. Instead eat naturally gluten-free nutritious foods.’
Potatoes, rice, quinoa and porridge are all wheat-free alternatives.
Soy Soy products are a good source of protein. Soy can be replaced by lentils, beans or eggs. Be careful to check labels on vegetarian foods as they often include soy protein.
Meat, fish, poultry and dairy products are good protein sources for non-veggies.
Edited by Phoebe Jackson-Edwards