‘Gluten, wheat and dairy exposure before you’ve even left the house…’

Any Dietary Requirements?

6th June 2014

Sarah Shephard investigates the food-related issues that are affecting more people than ever before…

The question posed in the title has been standard fare for many years on RSVPs and travel bookings, and it used to be fairly simple to answer. Vegetarians, vegans and those needing Kosher or Halal meals were those expected to reply in the affirmative, while everyone else took what they were given. But in recent years, what we eat – or more likely, what we don’t eat – has become a lot more complicated.

You only have to glance down the ever expanding ‘’Free From’ aisle in the supermarkets to understand just how many of us are now searching for products that fit within our dietary restrictions, whether that’s an allergy, a sensitivity or an intolerance, or just because we think it’s healthier to take a gluten-free (say) option.

So, why have these issues become so commonplace, what are the differences between them and how do we know whether we really have any of them? One of the difficulties in answering the last of these questions is that what we eat can affect us in such a variety of ways. According to nutritional therapist, Marta Napierala of online health consultancy Wilde Performance, food reactivity can manifest itself as anything from “digestive upsets such as constipation, diarrhoea or bloating to things like swollen lips or skin that turns bright red and gets itchy and flaky”.

These are the sort of symptoms that are usually associated with our bodies reacting to something, but, Napierala says, “we also have to consider things like low energy levels, lack of concentration or clarity (something we term ‘brain fog’), or even anger and depression.” She believes that it has become too easy to blame these symptoms on factors like excessive stress levels and our pace of life: “We all have the potential to feel great, sleep through the night, be happy with our weight and have lots of energy. If we don’t, it means that our body is not happy for some reason and in most cases the quickest way to find the answer is to look at the end of our fork.”

Recognising the symptoms is one thing, but to fully appreciate the impact that food can have on our bodies we have to understand those frequently used (and misused) terms: allergy, sensitivity and intolerance.

An allergy, says Napierala is “a full blown reaction of your immune system. Imagine it as the police, the army and the navy of your body being called into action to protect you. It means that when you have an allergic response, your body reacts quickly by releasing chemical substances called mediators to fight whatever it is that your body does not like. Most allergic reactions are mild, but in extreme cases, such as with a severe peanut or seafood allergy, the person can go into an anaphylactic shock.”

Next step down, if you like, is food sensitivity: “[This] is also an immune based response but it’s not usually as severe or as immediate. Our body’s reaction can occur for up to 72 hours after consumption of a certain food or beverage we are sensitive to, making it harder to identify. This, combined with the multitude of symptoms means sensitivities are still a bit of a grey area. There are situations where a person could be sensitive to up to 20 foods at the same time, such as with gluten or dairy sensitivities.

And finally, “an intolerance is a non-immunological food reaction (one that does not involve the body’s immune system). It’s caused by a lack of specific enzymes in the body that are needed to break the food down – without these enzymes our bodies can’t absorb and use the food. A good example is a dairy intolerance that occurs due to a lack of the enzyme lactase. Without this enzyme, the lactose (a type of sugar found in milk) can’t be broken down and remains undigested, meaning it can’t be absorbed by the small intestine.”

With the ‘what’ covered, the ‘why’ comes into focus. Our grandparents and great grandparents had no ‘Free From’ sections in their high street shops, nor umpteen alternatives to cow’s milk to choose from. So why have we become a society seemingly reliant on these options? Napierala points to four common irritants that make up a large part of a typical ‘Western Diet’: gluten, wheat, dairy and soya. “With the way our food is processed these days, a lot of the time we won’t be aware of the potential irritants present in what we eat, unless we learn to read labels, look out for things added to our food and stop focusing solely on numbers (like calories).”

She runs through an average day’s food below, highlighting where those common allergens feature:

Breakfast – “cereal of some variety with semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, tea or coffee and perhaps some fruit. Some people might have toast or pastries with jam or other preserves. That’s gluten, wheat and dairy exposure before you’ve even left the house.”

Snack – “biscuits or pastries, maybe a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps and probably another tea or coffee usually with milk. Again that’s gluten, wheat and dairy [and] also likely to be soya-derived additives of some sort.”

Lunch – “a sandwich, panini or a pasta salad with a can of soft drink. More gluten, dairy and soya exposure.”

Snack – “a chocolate bar and another tea or coffee, perhaps. Heavily processed chocolate bars are likely to not only have soya-derived additives but also gluten in some form, and dairy.”

Dinner – “for some it will be a pasta or rice based dish with some meat or fish and minimal vegetables, with a couple of beers and maybe a dessert. Pasta contains gluten while beer derives from wheat and desserts will likely contain dairy and/or gluten.”

When a daily food intake is broken down like this, it becomes clear how we are over-consuming the type of foods that are the most likely to have a negative impact upon our health. Add our typically elevated stress levels in to the equation, says Napierala and the problems multiply. “When we’re stressed, digestion becomes of secondary importance to our body as it focuses its energy on survival. This means our food does not get broken down efficiently and we end up surviving rather than thriving with no answer as to how to make ourselves feel better.”

What’s next then, for those who think they could be suffering from one of the issues discussed? Your first action, says Napierala, should be to undertake an elimination diet. This means taking the most common reactive foods (wheat, gluten, dairy and soya) out of your diet for at least three weeks before re-introducing them slowly, one by one. “Monitor your symptoms for up to three days post consumption to see what your reaction is,” she instructs. Re-introducing each food type gradually, one at a time, means you should get a clear idea as to which one is causing the issue.

A lot of the time, simply managing your food intake can result in a positive outcome but for some it might also require looking at ways of reducing stress levels and addressing any lifestyle factors that could be adding to the issues. When in doubt though, seeking professional advice is crucial. “It will not only save you years of trying to figure it out for yourself, hours of pointless research, misinformation, confusion and frustration but it will also educate you for life, as opposed to providing quick but short term fixes.”

Food can be one of life’s great pleasures. But if it’s leaving you feeling anything other than happy, fulfilled and energised, then it could be time to pay more attention to what your body is trying to tell you. Because nothing tastes as good as being healthy feels.

Wilde Performance is an online health consultancy run by Cliff Wilde and Marta Napierala. They specialise in nutritional therapy and working with people who have been told there are no answers to their health and lifestyle related problems. www.wildeperformance.com

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