Keeping a close eye on our nutrition and choosing the ‘best’ foods is incredibly important for us fitness folk. We often stick to the foods we know keep our digestive system happy and give us the energy needed for exercise as well as our usual daily tasks. Plus, we’ll never have a flat tum if our foods don’t agree with us. Because we are so careful about what we eat, because we are so bodily aware and because we expect our body to work like well-oiled machines, we know when something isn’t right and boy do we like to talk about it! The term ‘intolerance’ (and even ‘allergy’) is thrown around a lot in this industry but what do they really mean? Are we, in fact, ‘intolerant’ at all?
Let me start by saying food intolerance is different to food allergy. Intolerances are more common and likely to cause symptoms in the form of gastric distress and irritable bowel syndrome which can leave you feeling bloated and in pain with stomach cramps. Symptoms are also more likely to come on slowly (several hours after consumption) and can stick around for a long period of time too (up to a few days). Allergies are more serious in that symptoms occur much more quickly and they are more likely to be fatal (anaphylaxis is a fatal reaction) but allergies can elicit mild symptoms too (itchy lips/mouth, rash, wheezing, sickness).
Around 30% of people claim to suffer with food allergies and intolerances when in truth, only a very very small percentage are actually, medically diagnosed as such. I do believe many of us mistake food aversion (food avoidance for psychological reasons such as distaste or desire to lose weight) and psychological intolerance (unpleasant bodily reaction caused by emotions associated with food) for simple, straight-forward intolerance. Interesting thought, hey? However, sadly, there are many of us who do suffer from legitimate medically diagnosed issues with certain foods.
Neither allergy nor intolerance are curable so sufferers have to learn how manage the problem by avoiding trigger foods and finding appropriate alternatives so they can still obtain a full range of nutrients and still enjoy food. I’m going to focus on some intolerances so that you can recognise the most common ones and know how to find good, healthy alternatives. Even if you don’t suffer yourself, you may well know (and have to feed) someone that does, so hopefully you’ll find this summary helpful.
What are the main causes of food intolerance? Well, there are two, but the presence of naturally-occurring chemicals is one which encompasses many different substances:
- Enzymatic – Our bodies are simply defective in producing or delivering the necessary enzyme to break down the food (e.g. lactase for lactose).
- Chemical – Some people are sensitive to certain chemicals found in foods which cause symptoms (e.g. caffeine). More specifically, the natural occurrence of histamine in certain foods (which increases as food rots) can trigger sufferers to react or the excessive consumption of salicylate (a derivative found in some fruits, vegetables and processed foods) can also cause adverse effects.
Often, we will never know the true causes of food intolerances but I’m not sure this really matters. What does matter is that we know which foods cause us issues and how we can substitute them thus managing the problem and preventing those adverse reactions.
I’ve compiled a list below to help you do just that…
1) Cow’s Milk – if you suffer from cramps, bloating, diarrhoea or any other gastro-intestinal issues then swap it for unsweetened nut milks like almond or cashew. You can try the lower-in-lactose goat milk as an option but be aware this is not lactose free! Also be sure to switch your whey protein for rice, pea, soy or a vegan blend.
2) Other dairy foods including cheese and yoghurt. You can go completely lactose free by choosing those labelled as such or you could try Greek yoghurt, kefir or quark as the fermentation process means most of the lactose is eaten up by the good bacteria.
3) Gluten – this is a protein which can cause common gastro-intestinal issues. Look for whole grains which are labelled as ‘gluten-free’ e.g. buckwheat, millet, rice, quinoa (or uncontaminated oats!). By avoiding gluten, you’ll also avoid wheat which could actually be the real root of the problem.
4) Oats – This is a rare intolerance but I do know some people feel a bit icky after eating oats (sad, I know!) and because it’s a staple in the fitness world, I thought it could be useful to offer some substitutes. Rice, quinoa, millet and buckwheat can all be eaten instead – cooked up like porridge ‘oats’ or made up as overnight ‘oats’, but not oats – ah, you get the gist!
5) Seafood – Both white and fatty fish contain lots of nutrients which are necessary for a healthy, balanced diet. If you suffer from any of the symptoms discussed when consuming seafood though, it is best to look at other foods to ensure you still get those nutrients. Other meat sources (e.g. turkey, lean beef and chicken) or a meat alternative (e.g. tofu) will see you get the benefits of the protein content. Olive and coconut oils, walnuts and brazil nuts, avocados and tofu, and the all-important leafy greens will ensure you get suitable fatty acids in your diet.
6) Eggs – It is possible to get egg-alternatives of course and you can always look to other sources of protein like meat or tofu if that is your worry. I think we love eggs largely for their role in baking healthy treats but worry not – chia seeds mixed with water, yoghurt, mashed banana, and apple puree all make good egg substitutes in this case.
While the foods mentioned above tend to be the most common food intolerances, I want to quickly mention FODMAPs as you may have heard these being talked about.
FODMAP is an abbreviation for ‘fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols’ and they are a group of short-chain carbohydrates which cause gastric distress due to their poor absorption in the intestines. These foods are also the cause of pulling water into the digestive tract causing symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea, constipation and painful stomach cramps. The problems with FODMAPs is that they are found in a variety of foods so it becomes very difficult to diagnose and prevent. Some of the foods include apples, bread, milk, honey, soft cheeses, lentils, beans and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli. If you have IBS-like symptoms, it is wise to pull these foods from your diet and replace them one-by-one to figure out which specifically are causing you problems. It’s a process that will take time but I really believe it’s worth doing for the sake of your health and quality of life.
I hope this post helps you to consider your diet and gives you the confidence to tackle any issues you might come across (either for your own health or others). If you find you are suffering from gastric problems, you should avoid the problem foods listed and instead opt for the healthy alternatives– as you can see there are plenty of options to choose from! Don’t worry, as you can see, you can still enjoy food but you just have to be a little more careful in order to avoid the dreaded bloat!