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Food Allergies- Fact or Fiction?
Food Allergies- Fact or Fiction?
Seems like if you want to be in with the in crowd- you’ve got to get yourself a food allergy. Anyone who’s anyone has got one, but how do you really know if you’ve got a problem? Dietitian Nigel Denby investigates……….
Millions of people mistakenly believe they are allergic to one food or another. All the celebs “have a food allergy” and report how finding theirs has helped them achieve that waif like figure or given the secret of eternal youth! In fact, less than 2% of the adult population (including celebs) have a true food allergy. Muriel Simmon, Chief executive of the British Allergy Foundation explains that “food allergy and food intolerance are often confused, as many as 1 in 3 people believe they have a food allergy.” Silvia Anton, Healthcare analyst from Datamonitor says “More and more people are self diagnosing a food allergy, and are unnecessarily eliminating important foods from the diets.” There’s a mass of confusion and we live in a quick fix society. Sometimes it’s easier to blame something like food allergy for the way we feel, than taking the steps needed to live a healthier lifestyle. Gail Pollard, a specialist Dietitian working with Food Allergy adds, “that although food allergy and in particular food intolerance are on the increase, and should be taken seriously, it’s not as simple as cutting out bread or milk. Food allergy needs professional guidance from an expert.”
Allergy or intolerance what’s the difference?
An allergy can be everything from a runny nose, itchy eyes and palate to a rash. It affects the sense of smell, sight, taste and touch causing irritation, misery and in extreme cases can kill you. Basically, the body's immune system overreacts. Although the word "Allergy" is commonly used to describe any unpleasant reaction to a food, this can be misleading.
The word should only really be used to describe a reaction produced when the body “remembers” a food from a previous exposure and produces the "IgE" antibody which can be detected in the blood. "Sensitivity" is a reaction, which is an exaggeration of a normal side effect produced by food. For example, caffeine, if given at too high a dose in some people may cause them to "shake".
"Intolerance" happens when symptoms occur after eating something which your body cannot handle, it can’t digest the food in the normal way. Symptoms of food intolerance range from bloating, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, abdominal pain and altered bowel habits.
One of the main problems with sensitivity and intolerance is that they are so difficult to diagnose. The conventional tests for allergies can’t detect food intolerances, Gail Pollard explains “the procedures you need to go through to find a food intolerance need a massive commitment from the sufferer and supervision by someone who really knows what they are doing. Experience and an understanding of the condition and the individual are the most reliable tools you can use when dealing with food intolerance.” Both food allergy and intolerance are more common in children than adults, but children often grow out of food intolerances. If a problem does exist parents need to take care to make sure that they are firstly excluding the problem food completely and then, that they are using other foods or supplements when needed to replace missing nutrients.
How do I get myself tested?
As the demand for allergy testing and the understanding of allergy grows, so too does the range of tests available. Unfortunately this can add to the confusion, and is where a lot of people can get inaccurate results and inadequate information about what to do with their results.
The British Allergy Foundation says “blood tests, skin prick testing and patch tests as the only reliable and accurate allergy tests.” But there are a plethora of others available and according to Gail Pollard “these need to be viewed with some caution, and when it comes to food allergy, even the reliable tests are better at ruling out a problem than telling which food you are allergic to, for that you need to follow an exclusion diet”.
This test measures the amount of IgE antibody you produce when you come into contact with an allergen (the food you are allergic to). Blood is usually taken from a small vein in the arm. The test is mainly used for people suspected as having an extreme reaction to a food, or for people with very bad eczema. Results are available within 2 weeks and are graded according to the severity of the allergy.
Skin prick testing
It works by pricking the skin with a minute quantity of suspect allergens, up to 25 can be tested at a time, results can be ready in minutes. A reaction shows as a small red swollen spot or weal on the skin. Skin prick testing can be conducted on adults, children and even babies. It still not known why, but skin prick testing is better ruling out food allergy than diagnosing it.
Similar to skin prick tests except the suspected allergens are applied to the skin, usually the back, using patches. The patches are worn for 48 hours and problem foods will show a red mark on the skin.
Medications like antihistamines can affect the results of all of the test which should only ever be performed by trained medics in a specialist allergy clinic.
Other allergy tests
There are dozens of other tests available often at a hefty price tag. The British Allergy Foundation says these tests “are not regarded by conventional medicine as being relevant, and have no place in the diagnosis of true allergies.” There is very little science behind them and they often contradict all that we know about how the body works.
Applied Kiniesiology, measures muscle strength, and your resistance to foods. Practitioners claim to use your body’s energy to help them diagnose.
The Auricular cardiac reflex method tells you about your allergies by monitoring your pulse when suspect foods are offered to you.
Some centres offer to give you a diagnosis by looking at your hair samples, where others will place drops of suspect foods under your tongue and monitor how you respond. And then there is Vega Testing where your magnetic field gives away the secrets of your allergies. Gail Pollard explains that she “sees many people in her clinic who have received completely inaccurate diagnosis of food allergies, and absolutely no advice as to how to avoid foods properly and safely.”
When it comes to diagnosing food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity there is only one reliable and complete method. An exclusion diet involves following a very simple bland diet for two weeks, the diet only includes a few foods that are known not to cause a problem. After 2 weeks, if symptoms have eased off, you then have to begin the process of introducing one food at a time, waiting a few days to see if there is a reaction, and then trying another. Exclusion diets are hard work and take a long time! They should only ever be tried under the supervision of a dietitian or registered nutritionist, who can check that you are following it safely without compromising your self or wasting your time! When you have found the problem the foods, they can then help you to construct as complete and varied eating plan as possible.
So what if still think I’ve go a problem?
Let’s say you suspect that you may have a problem with wheat; it’s not as simple as thinking you’ll just give up bread. Wheat is used in all sorts of foods you might never imagine, like ice cream and most processed and pre prepared foods. So, following a special diet can be tricky and means avoiding a lot of foods we all eat every day. If you do want an allergy test, you can find out where recognised tests are carried out in your area through your GP, practice nurse, health visitor or pharmacist. But, remember that these tests may not tell you what you are allergic to and will not be able to diagnose food intolerance or sensitivity. If you think you want to work with a dietitian or nutritionist, both the British Dietetic Association and the Nutrition Society websites list where you can contact someone in your area. If you suspect that your children may have a problem, then it’s imperative that you don’t dive in without help. Kids need every bit of nutrition you can give them, if you start needlessly taking whole foods out of their diet; they are going to be at serious nutritional risk. Gail Pollard explains, “so many people come to me thinking they have a food allergy, and for those that do, we can really help to improve their quality of life. For some people it’s more a matter of making changes to an unhealthy lifestyle to help put them right.” It seems that the bottom line is that food allergy and intolerance is a complicated business and that you really need expert advice before jumping on the band wagon.
We wanted to see what the really happened in the weird and wacky side of allergy testing. We sent Libby Young (33), a Bedfordshire Mum who works part time in London to do the rounds. Libby has none of the symptoms associated with food allergy, but to make sure we sent her for a skin prick test which ruled out allergies of any kind. We then sent her to a Hertfordshire clinic which offers a range of less conventional allergy testing. Libby told the clinic she suffered with bloating and feeling tired all the time. The therapist suggested Applied Kiniesiology and this is what he came up with.
Libby was asked to lie on a couch with her arm out stretched toward the ceiling. The therapist told her that he was “going to tune into her energy levels”, he then offered vials of different foods to her hand and from the resistance he picked up from Libby he “diagnosed” her allergies. He told her she was allergic to yeast, sugar and mushrooms, and also that she had “issues with vitamin B”- he didn’t explain what those issues might be. He explained that Libby didn’t need to avoid yeast, sugar and mushrooms, but that if she came back for more treatments (at £50 a time) he would cure the allergies.
Libby does actually suffer from hay fever, which the practitioner claimed he had also managed to cure in her first appointment, when we spoke to Libby the following day she said “her eyes and nose were streaming as usual and that she didn’t think she would be going back for any more treatments! She told us “the more I asked about the treatment, the more he just kept telling me that it was to do with my energies and that it was very complicated, he really seemed to believe in what he was doing, but I just couldn’t see any logic behind the treatment.”