Twenty-six-year-old Georgia has been living with lactose intolerance for more than a decade. When she first developed symptoms — stomach sensitivity, gas, and diarrhea — she was lucky her mother, a dietitian, corrected her own self-diagnosis of gastro as a food intolerance. Others like her aren’t as fortunate.
A recent study by YouGov and Liddells Lactose Free Dairy, which surveyed 1,000 respondents in Australia, revealed that a worrying 22 per cent of Aussies reported self-diagnosing a food intolerance. About 35 per cent who identified as having an intolerance never consulted a doctor to get an official diagnosis or management care for their symptoms.
In a phone interview with Lifehacker Australia, Georgia admitted many of her friends turn to Dr Google to diagnose themselves because they are too embarrassed to talk about ‘gross’ symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea, even with their GP.
“I think because I’ve grown up around a family that is very open to speaking about health-related stuff, I was pretty comfortable talking to them and others about lactose intolerance,” Georgia said.
“But I do have friends who kind of feel like it’s something they need to be ashamed of or it’s something they need to hide. While saying that, I have recently noticed a lot more people are opening up about dealing with their intolerance to food given an increase in awareness.”
Worryingly, the research found nearly a third of Aussies (32 per cent) admitted to not knowing the difference between lactose intolerance and dairy allergy. In fact, 43 per cent of people who reported on having a food intolerance said they cut out dairy entirely from their diet to relieve symptoms.
This, Gut Health Specialist and Dietitian Nicole Dynan said, was alarming, and she went on to warn against dietary self-diagnosis. According to her, cutting out important food groups from your diet can have adverse effects on both your physical and mental health.
“Dairy contains crucial nutrients like calcium and vitamins that can be more difficult to obtain in other food groups and, without them, people run the risk of developing health problems in the long run,” Dynan explained in a media release.
“It’s important to make sure that you keep up a well-balanced diet that works for you to get all the nutrients your body needs.
“It’s great to see that Australians have used the recent downtime to care for their personal health and wellbeing, but it’s always a good idea to get an opinion from a professional before making significant changes to a diet, as there are plenty of options that don’t require elimination of entire food groups that people may be unaware of.”
Food allergy versus food intolerance
For many Australians, there’s a knowledge gap when it comes to food allergies and food sensitivity – terms that should not be used interchangeably even if symptoms overlap.
Better Health, Victoria helps define each term and why allergies are an immune response whereas food intolerance is a chemical reaction.
Allergies are an overreaction of the body’s immune system to a protein. These proteins may be from foods, pollens, house dust, animal hair or moulds. They are called allergens. The word allergy means that the immune system has responded to a harmless substance as if it were toxic.
Food intolerance is a chemical reaction that some people have after eating or drinking some foods; it is not an immune response. Food intolerance has been associated with asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome.
An article from The Washington Post further explained that while food allergies can be diagnosed with the help of a board-certified allergist though skin-prick tests and IgE blood tests, but there aren’t any validated tests for food intolerances.
Given the gap in information and findings from the recent study, please do yourself a favour and visit the GP or a dietitian if you feel any discomfort after eating specific foods. They’ll help you uncover exactly what’s impacting your health and give you advice on managing your symptoms in the best way possible. Don’t ask Dr Google.