Allergic to Intolerances

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Virgil Evetts

The other day I was in a health food store. It doesn’t’t happen often, as I find the notion of such places redundant and vaguely irritating. I can make healthy food from pretty much anything, bought pretty much anywhere, so can’t really see the point. Anyway, as I was waiting at the checkout in said den of superfluity, I overheard a beautifully moronic conversation between the cashier and a similarly home-spun customer. The pair were locked in a ludicrous duel of dietary intolerance- oneupmanship. Eventually, to my barely concealed delight, the customer knocked her sparring partner out the water with the claim that she’d acquired a serious digestive disorder from sulphites in vinegar. She’d decided!

For this to be even remotely possible she’d need to be throwing back liters of vinegar a day, which would cause far bigger problems than a bit of a tummy upset. Like renal failure and death.

I despair, I really do. Once upon a time, people relied on anaphylaxis or medical opinion to identify allergies and digestive complaints, and accepted such diagnoses with due glumness. Today, gleeful self-diagnosis seems to be something of a national pastime.

Next time someone tells you they’re lactose or gluten intolerant, ask them how they know. Chances are, they just decided. Chances are they’re wrong too.  Yes, there are plenty of people with genuine food allergies and intolerances knocking around the place, but the figures for clinically diagnosed cases are well below those for people who believe they are afflicted. It speaks volumes that such studies have even been carried out.

To clarify, having a food allergy means your immune system has decided that elements in certain foods are toxic, meaning all hell breaks loose when they enter your system. Anything from a bit of a rash to a bit of massive cardiac arrest is on the cards. Intolerance, on the other hand, is when your body cannot process or bear the presence certain foods for physiological reasons. The latter is usually not fatal, just often very unpleasant. Neither of these conditions are remotely desirable, nor are they the sort of things you can categorically self-diagnose. If you do so and happen to be right, great, but what if you’re wrong? What if the cause of your discomfort is something else, something much worse? That’s assuming you actually have any discomfort. I might just be a terrible, monstrous cynic, but I suspect there are more than a few people out there who perceive a certain caché in such conditions, and enjoy the attention their fussing attracts. Never mind that such attention is mostly derision.

If you’re feeling poorly and don’t know why, go see a doctor. Why commit yourself to the misery of a controlled diet for the sake of a hunch? And when the only explanation left in your overused arsenal of self-pity is vinegar poisoning, it’s probably time to pull yourself together. Too harsh?

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12 thoughts on “Allergic to Intolerances

  1. Very good read there Virgil.

    I have to agree with you 100%. I am and no onw in my family does not suffer from any food intolerence or allergy. I wouldnt wish that on anyone and I certainly feel for those who do.

    But I am with you on those people who say they have this allergy or that intolerence when they really have ahd an overload of that food and have felt upset with it.
    I personally have done this with milk, I drank too much over a a period of 2 weeks and didnt realise how much I had. I felt sick, bloated and other things I wont mention. But my doctor put me straight.
    I just know now not to be a pig when drinking milk lol..

    I can see you’re not digging at those who are genuinly ill, thats not in your nature. But for those who “try hard” and get attention. It sure is frustrating and I for one have done many an eye roll at those who do claim to be very sick, yet you watch them eat/drink what they cant have……

    • When my son was a baby he suffered from terrible sinus problems. Several doctors said he was “quite obviously” lactose intolerant. We then embarked on a lactose free diet until he was eight when on a visit to a new doctor it remarked that he really needed his adenoids removed. This was done, went straight off soy and back to dairy, and never suffered from sinus again. He is now 18

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I have coeliac disease (diagnosed by a doctor via a blood test and a supremely uncomfortable endoscopy, incidentally) and what drives me crazy about those with self-diagnosed allergies/intolerances is that they often “cheat” on their self-imposed diet and consume the alleged allergen if they really, really want it, which just makes the rest of us look like we’re faking.

  3. Virgil, I find your comments quite offensive. My son has serious food allergies (anaphylaxis) to dairy, egg, wheat and nuts and I struggle constantly with people who think we are being faddish or fussy about what we eat.
    I have to visit said health shops frequently to try and find safe food for him to eat. Thank goodness those shops exist. Eating out is impossible.
    Also sulphites are on the high allergy food list and they are known to trigger asthma and breathing problems in people with allergies and we have been told to avoid them.
    There needs to be more awareness about food allergies and intolerances and how serious they can be. How about having a little more respect and empathy next time you hear someone talking like that?

    • RJ, I was not talking about genuine allergy sufferers like your son, but people who assume or worse still affect allergies without seeking medical opinion. As a beekeeper I am extremely aware of the dangers of genuine allergies.
      Re-sulphites, yes you are correct but the sulphite content in vinegar is extremely low because vinegar bacteria cannot survive in the presence of even moderate levels of sulphites.
      In order to be affected by the sulphites in vinegar you would need to drink litres of the stuff per week.

  4. Hi Peter
    To clarify- and it’s a fair point to ask- I was referring to a mostly pills & potions shop (with a small range of dried foodstuffs etc), not an organics or whole food outlet. I have no issue with the latter and frequent them regularly-ish. The former however annoys me because such places only exist because people think they need them, or see them as providing an improvement on or alterantive to real food. Always appreciate your thoughts Peter.

    • Thanks for the clarification and yes – I am with you completely. What does Michael Pollan say in his Food Rules: “Food Rule No. 40 – Be the kind of person who takes supplements – then skip the supplements” :-)



  5. No, not too harsh at all. I agree with most of your statements. But … unfortunately you too often make the mistake in your column that you just say something which seems to be not well thought through. Sorry my impression. Using some peoples hunt for affection and urge to be “special” because they are whatever-intolerant to damn the health stores is a bit harsh. Your comment “I can make healthy food from pretty much anything, bought pretty much anywhere, so can’t really see the point.” nags me. Because No! You Can’t! Except if you see mass produced vegetables, sprayed with whatever chemicals and fertilised with human waste as a healthy food option. Just as an example. Or processed food from the freezer. Or caged eggs (only eggs we can get in our supermarket!) Or “plastic”-dairy products. If this is your idea of healthy food, well then you are right. But it isn’t mine. Yes you can make a meal from products bought in a supermarket which is kind of healthy. At least healthier than buying a frozen pizza (from the same supermarket). But we still need shops and outlets which sell healthy food. Which brings me to the term “Health Food Store”. What exactly do you mean with this? A store selling additives, vitamins and minerals in pills? Or an organic veggie shop which sells organic vegetables and other products? What is your idea of a health food store? And what is so redundant and irritating about a store selling health food?

    So no, I don’t find your article too harsh. I find it confusing and too general. I find it too cliche – home spun, eh? – and too one sided.

  6. Inez, I do not discount or mean to diminish the reality of food allergies and intolerances, what I object to- or find annoying- is the faddish habit of adopting such conditions (that bring genuine misery to others), based purely on suspicion- or worse, affectation. For example, one cannot simply assume to be lactose intolerant based solely on feeling bloated or queasy whenever you ingest milk. There are simply too many other variables to consider and a reliable diagnosis should be sought before anything is cut out of the diet. Of equal concern is that many of these conditions have highly generic symptoms which can look like so many others things including cancers and ulcers.

  7. There are many people out there with medically diagnosed problems with food who DO get very sick when they eat the wrong food. The fact that you feel that the majority of people are doing this as “a fashion statement” means that you are perpetuating a myth that I and others battle daily. (Yes I do have medically diagnosed Coeliac Disease and Fructose Malabsorption and I am also a medical specialist.)

    As for Liz, I love my food and would be jumping for joy if I could eat all the things I used to enjoy. Because I love my food I refuse to live a lesser life by not going to restaurants but I have been “poisoned” at 2 well known new zealand restaurants with international reputations, despite emailing and checking that my diet could be accommodated by the restaurants in question prior to travelling to NZ. One one occasion this meant that I missed the conference that I had specifically travelled to NZ to attend.

    There are, of course, many restaurants that not only accommodate food allergies and intolerances, but go out of their way to provide fabulous service. Bottom Line – If you don’t have the intolerance, what’s it got to do with you anyway, if other people have?

  8. Excellent article Virgil. I can’t abide people who don’t enjoy their food. I think the term for people who take it to an extreme is ‘orthorexia’, a condition that can lead to malnutrition.

    And, to comment on cheese lovers comment, intelligence never stopped people from believing weird things.

  9. Not sure Virgil….. I know some intelligent people who swear that they are better without dairy or gluten even though the doctors have found no reason why. Just because medicine cannot diagnose the problem does not mean there isn’t one.

    For me personally I try not to overload my body with too much of one thing and avoid things with loads of additives. Certainly I can feel sluggish if I have overdone the wheat/bread or sugar and I know I need to readdress the balance.