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Foodie fad or a real life-saver?

PUBLISHED: 09:00 30 September 2002 | UPDATED: 12:45 03 March 2010

ARE you intolerant, allergic or just plain picky? Food intolerances have turned into something of a fashionable discovery in recent times, with millions banishing certain products from their diets.

ARE you intolerant, allergic or just plain picky? Food intolerances have turned into something of a fashionable discovery in recent times, with millions banishing certain products from their diets.

Here, in the second part of our series on allergies,

Debbie Watson finds out how to get yourself tested, and asks whether food avoidance is really necessary at all.

GERI Halliwell has placed herself at the centre of criticism countless times over her dietary habits.

Like many other celebrities whose svelte bodies adorn the covers of glossy magazines, she swears by exclusion diets.

But fads and fashion aside – are diets that axe key food substances really necessary for us?

Do they aid better digestion, glowing skin and a fitter body, or are they just the confirmation of a society addicted to fast-fix whims?

Arguably, such stringent dietary processes have shot up in trend-status in the UK (partly because of the abundant celeb following) – but that craze clearly must not detract from the many millions who genuinely find themselves in dire need of wiping major edible groups off the menu.

Take anaphalaxis.

This is such a severe reaction to a nut-containing food product that a single remnant of peanut could kill.

Equally severe reactions to specific food families are believed to be experienced by around 1.5 per cent of the population – leaving them with violent rashes, swollen lips, vomiting and breathing difficulties: all of which could be bad enough to cause death.

So if this ratio of severe allergies really is so small, why on earth are so many people getting tested or self-diagnosing themselves to the conclusion that they must banish wheat or dairy products or some other major food source?

"It's really important to get your head around two very different concepts when it comes to food elimination'" says senior development scientist Alison Gibson. "One's food allergy, and the other is food intolerance."

Unlike so many of us self-diagnosing punters, Alison should know her stuff. She works at York Nutritional Laboratories, said to be Europe's leading specialist in food intolerance testing.

She says:"More and more people are finding that they have some kind of intolerance with their diet, and we've a lot of success in dramatically enhancing the quality of peoples' lives – simply because we can tell them what they need to eliminate.

"If they have an allergy then it's something that is potentially life-threatening and creates an immediate reaction to a product.

"By contrast, an intolerance is often referred to as a delayed allergy. Someone with that kind of problem would find that a foodstuff creates things like migraines, chronic fatigue symptoms and general bloating."

And while these latter symptoms might not sound so horrendous, they are certainly restricting and potentially debilitating in the longer term.

Common food groups like wheat, dairy products, shellfish and citrus fruits can all trigger uncomfortable reactions and are very often identified as items to be avoided.

Fortunately, more and more supermarkets are latching on to the idea that their customers may want something slightly more dietary-specific.

Special selections are now available in most of the bigger chains, offering items that are either dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free or whatever.

So, if we want to, we can actually achieve a diet relatively free of the most predominant food allergens. But do we need to?

Are we just causing a fuss because the 21st century has become an era of people deliberately trying rapid food-elimination diets in a bid to lose weight?

Are we just looking for an excuse to turn ourselves into fussy eaters and to deprive ourselves of certain food groups?

Nutritionist Geeta Jaisanghani says:"There has been a lot more talk about food allergies in recent times and I think there are a number of people who are simply diagnosing themselves. Maybe they do it because they have heard about eliminating foods to reduce weight, or maybe they believe that they genuinely have a bad reaction to a specific food."

Geeta works at the Woodbridge Complementary Health Centre, helping people get to the bottom of food sensitivities.

She talks with each patient in great detail about their lifestyle, their health, the stress they feel they might be under, and any particulary annoying reactions they tend to get after food (e.g. migraines and bloating).

That process is followed by a thorough food test to identify which items respond less well to the person's particular system.

While York Laboratories use a blood-sampling technique to establish intolerances according to antibody levels, Geeta's testing method is a German system based on analysing a person's energetic responses to foods.

"Discovering which foods you are sensitive to can make a huge difference to your life," she says.

"It gives you the opportunity to restrict or completely avoid those products and to potentially ease the symptoms you may have faced for years.

"In particular, there are a lot of people who are sensitive to wheat.

"We eat an awful lot of it in the western world, but by cutting it out for a while a person could very often find they can then re-introduce it to their diet at a later date without having the same awful symptoms."

The complexity of food allergies is such that even if you do make the decision to test yourself, you may find that one analysis varies from another.

Even with a thorough verdict, you still cannot guarantee how much of the problem is being helped by your new elimination habits, and how much is merely a matter of living in hope.

Now there's food for thought!

CELEBS

Dannii Minogue: "I found out I was allergic to wheat, cow dairy, yeast and some fruits, but it was the cow's dairy which surprised me the most because I had no idea. I've taken it out and there's so many different alternatives that you can have like sheep's cheese, goat's yoghurt, goat butter and it all tastes the same but it's just not from a cow and it's not bad for me"

Lionel Ritchie has an intolerance to dairy foods (according to angelfire.com).

Billy Bob Thornton – wheat, dairy and shellfish.

Drew Barrymore – coffee.

Weblink

www.foodallergy.org.uk

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