These days, it seems as though everywhere we turn, there is another friend who is lactose intolerant, gluten free, or working one food or another out of their diet entirely. Why are we getting sick from foods that have been consumed for thousands of years? Is it our bodies getting weaker? Is it the food industry manipulating our food supply? And why does the food allergy epidemic seem to be concentrated in the West? To get answers, we consulted with Boone Zavik from Immunolabs, a premiere food and environmental allergy testing facility in Fort Lauderdale.
WHERE IT COMES FROM
This is a tangled topic, and how you view it probably depends on where you live. Roughly 70% of the world’s population produces low levels of lactase (the enzyme required to digest milk), but the largest concentration of lactose intolerance is found in Asia, where nearly 100% of people suer from the allergy, likely due to the lack of dairy in the traditional Asian diet. Compare that to a range of 4.7-17% in the West, which is indelibly enamored with products from the creamery (The Dairy Council).
Dietary habits aside, our food itself is another complex issue. Our ancestors in Mesopotamia enjoyed ancient wheat varieties of the Triticum species, however, over time several wild varieties of grain cross-pollinated to spawn many more types with dierent agricultural and nutritional characteristics. One of the major biological changes was the addition of a chain of peptides responsible for triggering gluten allergy in persons with the corresponding genome (those we diagnose as genetically predisposed to celiac disease). Nowadays, an even further spliced descendent of that ancient grain is the only widely available wheat variety in most of the world. It is shorter, produces more grains per head, and is nutritionally inferior to its predecessors. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that in the past ten years the prevalence of gluten allergy has risen from 1 in 2,500 people worldwide to 1 in 130 in the U.S. (Weston A. Price Foundation, 2006).
While it’s dicult to pinpoint a single scapegoat for our digestive dilemmas, we can learn how to recognize symptoms, get tested properly, and make necessary adjustments to our diets to feel our best.
THE TWO FACES OF FOOD ALLERGY
For starters, there are two main types of food allergies: immediate and delayed. If you have an immediate reaction, you probably know about it already. Those sudden hives and swelling that are sometimes experienced when eating shellfish or peanuts are caused by the Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody and can be dangerous, releasing histamine, and potentially causing anaphylactic shock. Delayed allergies, on the other hand, are not as serious, but realizing their ill eects may require some detective work.
This is because your body develops the IgE antibody, which then attaches to various cells, at the rst allergen exposure. The next time, the allergen will react with those antibodies and potentially trigger anaphylaxis. What’s the takeaway? Multiple exposures can cause you to be much more sensitive to an allergen. A single, small reaction can turn into something much more critical the next time. So, listen to your body.
“If you have a delayed type, it’s often dicult to self-diagnose,” says Zavik. “Delayed [reactions] are often overlooked because a headache, joint pain, [or] uid retention hours or days later are rarely connected to what you ate.”
When we say “delayed,” we’re talking somewhere within the window of 4-28 hours after the consumption of the guilty food. These are caused by the IgG antibody and will not release histamine or cause anaphylaxis, however, that does not mean they should be taken lightly.
TEST, DON’T GUESS
“We often say, ‘Test, don’t guess!’ This is because it can be very difficult to self-determine by food elimination or following a hypoallergenic diet,” Zavik explains. “Every single one of us humans is unique with a one-of-a-kind body and biochemistry. Therefore, which foods aect your body and why is always specific to your individual biochemistry.”
Testing, as Zavik said, should be a priority. It is almost impossible to determine what exactly your allergy is without sophisticated evaluation, even if you feel as though you have a hunch. If you eliminate a food group based on a self-diagnosis, say, for example, dairy, you can actually be depriving your body of nutrition it needs to thrive instead of helping it. In addition, continued exposure to foods that cause an immune response can weaken the immune system over time, as it is working hard producing antibodies to ght the foods that are toxic.
Some other symptoms that may be caused by a delayed allergy are nausea, jitters, hyperactivity, and even seizure, all of which may occur in varying degrees depending on the person. If you’re thinking “sounds like me,” don’t fret; this important analysis is relatively easy. In fact, a simple blood test can tell you a lot about what foods are disrupting the chemical balance of your body. As the prevalence of food allergies has increased, these blood tests have grown in popularity, as well as other less conventional screenings, such as hair testing and applied kinesiology, or muscle testing.
If it turns out you do have some previously hidden, delayed reaction allergies, the solution is simple: avoid that food. This can be easier said than done, but with the prevalence of allergies and intolerances these days, there are many more options for substitutions than in the recent past.
Gluten-free is a common phrase among food bloggers, dieticians, and health freaks alike, but before you cut out the g-word, make sure you’ve got all your facts straight. First of all, what exactly is gluten (for those of us who, at this point, have smiled and nodded too long to ask)? Gluten is an umbrella term for the types of protein found in wheat, rye, triticale, and barley. It acts as a sort of glue that allows certain foods to keep their shape. We’re talking bread, pasta, cereals, and beer, as well as certain sauces, dressings, and soups. There are three main reasons a person should omit gluten products from their diets: an allergy to wheat, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Let’s break it down:
Lactose is another recently sullied term in the food world. It’s a strange turn. Milk is a part of the American consciousness; drinking a glass of milk was even seen as the equivalent of a vitamin routine. Milk contains calcium, and calcium builds strong bones. However, we’ve all read the claims that the human body simply isn’t designed to drink milk or other dairy products into adulthood. Is this really true?
The jury is still out, but a 2004 British Medical Journal study showed that straight-up milk might have the opposite effect, causing higher mortality rates and a higher likelihood for broken bones. But don’t ditch your dairy just yet. The same study says that fermented milk products are good, so stick with organic yogurt and cheese (much tastier than liquid milk anyway, honestly).
However, there are many people who can’t eat dairy at all, the inherent malevolence of milk aside. This is because of lactose intolerance and dairy allergies, which sound similar but are really very dierent. An allergy to dairy products is like the other allergic reactions discussed in this article and is caused by a reaction to a protein in milk products. It also tends to show up early in life. Lactose intolerance, however, often emerges spontaneously later in life and has a very different cause. People with this intolerance don’t have enough lactase, the enzyme that is needed to break down lactose. This can cause stomach pain, nausea, gas, diarrhea, and bloating. The symptoms for intolerance are often milder than those of an allergy.
If you are worried your body may be anti-dairy, definitely consult your doctor. One of the most important things to remember if you do decide that dairy is the cause of your stomach woes is to supplement the calcium you will lose by cutting it out. You can do this either with a vitamin or calcium chew, as well as by eating more foods rich in calcium, such as almonds and dark leafy greens like spinach.
GMO PROS AND CONs
Zavik tells us that “large companies that are pro- GMO—such as pesticide manufacturers, the FDA, and other large food producers—usually defend their positions and claim no connection,” as they might be expected to do. After all, GM foods have a number of agricultural and economic benets for companies in the field. However, a recent study (Pew Research Center, 2015) showed that 88% of scientists believe that GMOs are safe (compared to only 37% of the general public).
Despite these numbers, anti-GMOers maintain their stance, asserting that GMOs have not been proven 100% to be safe for consumption, that GM plants contaminate conventional and organically farmed crops, and that they will increase the use of dangerous pesticides, in addition to the fact that they may have negative long-term economic effects for farmers.