November 28, 2023

It is important for us to be fully aware of how our bodies react to different foods and what we may need to add or remove from our meals to ensure a healthy, balanced diet. (Photo: Pexels)

Food is necessary for life and for many of us it is a source of great enjoyment. However, some foods may cause us significant discomfort and could even be life-threatening.

It is important for us to be fully aware of how our bodies react to different foods and what we may need to add or remove from our meals to ensure a healthy balanced diet that allows us to feel nourished and comfortable.

Food intolerances and food allergies are all reactions to specific foods. We should pay attention to what we eat in order to ensure that we do not put our bodies under any undue stress. Let’s break down these terms, what they look like in our bodies, and how to get guidance from a health-care professional on navigating a diagnosis.

What are food intolerances?

Food intolerances are sensitivities to certain foods that affect your digestive system. People who suffer from a food intolerance are unable to digest certain foods or specific ingredients in these foods which further irritates the digestive system. While food intolerances are not life-threatening, they can be very uncomfortable and disruptive to those affected.

Reactions caused by a food intolerance will typically show within a few hours after eating. The symptoms of food intolerance include:

Abdominal (belly) pain


Gas and/or bloating



Upset stomach

Headaches or migraines




Common food intolerances include lactose intolerance and wheat/gluten intolerance. Otherwise, it is possible that there is an intolerance to a food additive, chemical or contaminant. These types of intolerances may be a reaction to:

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)



Artificial sweeteners

Artificial food colouring, preservatives and flavour enhancers.

Toxins, viruses, bacteria or parasites that have contaminated food.

Some symptoms of food intolerances may be symptoms of other illnesses which may make them hard to diagnose.

If you have observed any of the above symptoms after eating specific foods and may be concerned that you have a food intolerance, reach out to your doctor for advice.

Difference between food intolerance and allergies

A food allergy is a reaction of your immune system rather than your digestive system. Your immune system sends off a signal to protect your body from a threat that is mistakenly being set off by a particular food or ingredient. Symptoms of an allergic reaction often happen immediately after ingestion, unlike hours later like an intolerance. It may also be triggered by tiny particle amounts rather than an excess. Common food allergies include seafood, shellfish and nut allergies.

Symptoms of a food allergy may affect different parts of the body at the same time. It is important to stress that allergic reactions may become life-threatening and require emergency care. Symptoms of an allergic reaction to food include:

Itchy sensation inside the mouth, throat or ears.

A raised rash or hives

Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, eyes and roof of the mouth.


Breathing issues which may lead to anaphylaxis

An over-the-counter antihistamine may be used to treat mild or moderate allergic reactions to food. Otherwise, injections of adrenaline and/or higher doses of antihistamine will be required.

How do I determine if I have a food intolerance?

Food intolerances may show up at any point in our lives. It is possible to grow out of former intolerances as well as it is possible to develop new ones as we get older. The best tools available to us to determine if we have a food intolerance is a process of careful observation and experimentation. Two key ways you can do this are by an ‘elimination diet’ and a ‘food diary.’

An elimination diet involves you removing from your diet the food item you think is causing trouble. You won’t have this food at all for two to six weeks. You would then slowly reintroduce this item to your diet and take account of how your body reacts to it and what amounts cause reactions. On the other hand, a food diary includes taking note of what you eat, what symptoms you have after eating and when these symptoms happen, without the need to remove any item from your diet.

Once you are confident that you have a food intolerance, the only way to manage adverse reactions is to stop eating this food altogether. Or, through your documentation, assess what amounts of these foods cause reactions. Moving forward, you should remain vigilant and cautious by watching your food intake and checking labels to ensure you’re protecting yourself from ingesting something you’re intolerant to.

Neither of these methods is highly scientific, additionally, they may also be time-consuming and difficult to track. However, the reward is far greater than any inconvenience.

Technological advances in health care, including telemedicine, allow you 24/7 access to doctors. Any difficulty you may be having during your elimination diet or food diary, your doctor can help guide you whenever and wherever you are. Furthermore, once you’ve identified the problem, your physician can guide you through creating a safe and nutritious diet.

When do I see a doctor about my food intolerances?

If you do think you require treatment, food intolerances can be diagnosed and treated via telemedicine. Your GP can typically diagnose lactose intolerance, for example, by observing your symptoms and reviewing your medical history. You may do this via online consultations on platforms such as MDLink, which may allow you to get treatment in the comfort and convenience of your home, especially if you are going through the uncomfortable symptoms of intolerance. You may be referred to a specialist if your GP thinks this is necessary.

For children, parents should reach out to a paediatrician to discuss their child’s symptoms. It is crucial to not limit children’s diets while they are growing. Therefore, your doctor will be able to guide you through developing a diet with all the required nutrients and considerations for intolerances to give your child.

GPs, gastroenterologists (experts in digestion) and paediatricians are all available online via MDLink. They may send you a prescription to treat your symptoms as well as refer you to get recommended lab tests to lead you toward a possible diagnosis. However, if you are feeling severe abdominal pain, having extreme diarrhoea, unexplained weight loss or any other symptom that may seem emergent, it is crucial that you get in-person urgent care immediately.

Having a food intolerance may be highly uncomfortable and inconvenient. However, as with your general health, paying attention to your body and responding appropriately to its signals can guide you towards your most healthy, comfortable life. While taking advantage of the benefits of telemedicine, you can have personalised, private care all from wherever you feel most comfortable to discuss your digestive issues.

Dr Ché Bowen, a digital health entrepreneur and family physician, is the CEO & founder of MDLink, a digital health company that provides telemedicine options. Check out the company’s website at You can also contact him at [email protected].


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