Food Intolerances – Why?

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The other day I overheard two women discussing the increasing number of people with special dietary requirements.

One woman was certain it was all down to fad dieting while the other pushed her view that many modern-day people need to be on special diets for health reasons.

The first woman argued that couldn’t be true because in her grandmother’s day hardly anyone had food intolerances – everyone could and would have to eat everything that was put on the plate in front of them.

That got me thinking: why is it that there are so many different special dietary requirements nowadays?

Has there been a dramatic increase in the number of people who have food intolerances? Or is it simply that problems with food used to go undiagnosed?

When I was at primary school in the 90’s, I don’t remember any other children having dietary restrictions. Now, however, step foot into almost any primary school and you’d find a good percentage of children who have dietary requirements for health reasons.

The Year 5 class might have two children with coeliacs disease while a child in Year 1 avoids lactose products like the plague. It isn’t uncommon to hear about the entire Year 3 class who makes sure no one brings any nut products into the classroom because of one child’s severe allergy.

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy found the number of people with food allergies was rising dramatically.

In fact, from 1994 to 2005 there was a 550% increase in the rate of hospital admissions in Australia alone for food-related anaphylactic for children under five. That’s a huge increase in just eleven years and I can’t help but wonder why the number of people dealing with food intolerances continues to rise.

My childhood years were free of dietary requirements, yet by the time I hit university, people’s eyes would bulge at the list of food I had to avoid. So why is it that one hundred years ago, problems with food weren’t so widespread?

I believe one of the main reasons is that the world was a very different place back then. Our grandparent’s and great-grandparents didn’t live in a ‘now’ society.

The idea of ‘fast’ and ‘convenient’ food was almost non-existent. Food wasn’t processed. It wasn’t bought in packets and wasn’t something you ‘zapped in the microwave for two minutes.’ If you didn’t grow it yourself, food was regularly bought fresh from local markets, meals were cooked from scratch, and while they may not have been as fancy as we’d find today, they didn’t seem to upset the stomachs of our ancestors!

There is no denying there are a huge amount of processed foods available to buy now and I wonder if these processed foods are the culprit behind the widespread increase in food intolerances and allergies.

Then again, the world of medicine has advanced in the last century. We now have vaccinations and cures for illnesses that hadn’t even been identified at the turn of the 20th century.

Could it be that people have always been struggling with food intolerances, yet their symptoms have been passed off as something else?

In saying that, 100 years ago, being gluten or lactose intolerant wouldn’t have been such a big deal. There wasn’t a great amount of gluten or lactose in regular diets.

Now, however, most products you’ll find at the supermarket have all sorts of preservatives, flavours and thickeners added to it to increase its convenience and longevity.

Perhaps the answer is to go back to basics. Maybe we all need to take a leaf out of grandma’s book and join the slow food resurgence.

It seems both the two women I overheard had valid points. While it is true the number of people with special dietary requirements for health reasons has increased, perhaps the other woman was also stating a true fact when she stated there was some fad dieting at play.

However, this fad diet is perhaps not ‘fad dieting’ in the traditional sense of the word, but in the fact that more people are realising the health benefits that come with avoiding overly processed, packaged foods and instead choosing to eat food that must be prepared from scratch.

What do you think? Is there something to be said to joining the slow food movement? After all, it can’t hurt to try… you may even find a new lease on life!


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9 thoughts on “Food Intolerances – Why?

  1. One hundred years ago wheat in the form of bread, scones, cakes, biscuits and oats in the form of porridge, oat cakes etc were daily staples. They all contain large amounts of gluten. Clearly while some of your points are valid, others are not. A large number of the E numbers that you are concerned about are also naturally derived from such things as seaweed, beans, etc. If the medical establishment knew why food intolerances are on the increase then strategies would also be in place to minimise them. Part of the increase is certainly an increase in the ease of diagosis of problems.

    • I think you’re being a bit pedantic towards what was clearly an opinion piece intended to open the floor to discussion. Nothing was stated as fact, merely suggestion.

      Granted wheat was available in the forms you listed, I would not lump oats into the “large amount of gluten” category as it’s not that simple. I am gluten intolerant but enjoy oats porridge daily for breakfast as the gluten in porridge is different to the gluten you’d find in wheat, rye, etc.

      Similarly, I think we can all agree that when talking about food additives in an “impact-on-our-health” way, we are not referring to those E numbers which occur naturally in a product (like Vitamin C). We are talking about those substances that are synthetic or intentionally added to the product.

      So let’s not nit pick. As to the original debate, I do think there is a balance at play. There is no doubt medicine is progressing meaning diagnoses of allergies and intolerances has become commonplace. Likewise there is no denying that our food is in a heavy state of manufacturing (in all sense of the word) and hence different to the food from centuries ago.

      I think they mutually influence each other, but since bringing a stop to manufactured food-stuffs is unrealistic, it really is up to medicine to solve the “how” and “why” and come up with a “solution” (for those who would have it).

  2. Nice Balanced article

    @Jake, I am curious what you mean by unprocessed, for example do you eat coffee cheese yoghurt bread pasta or do you avoid food additives. I think the less additives the better but I know I do still eat some in products such as purchased bread and cheese.

  3. “In saying that, 100 years ago, being gluten or lactose intolerant wouldn’t have been such a big deal. There wasn’t a great amount of gluten or lactose in regular diets.”

    Milk and bread are staples which have been around for quite some time.

  4. Brilliant article!

    One thing I learned is that intolerance to dairy products often comes form the fact that milk nowadays is a processed food as well. The fat globules in milk are destroyed so that they become smaller in size. This avoids that milk fat is sitting on top of the bottle (how shocking,just imagine that!). The side effect is that the fat particles are now so tiny that they go straight through the wall of our intestines and directly into the blood. But hey, at least we don’t have a layer of milk fat on top of our bottles.

    The other aspect of dairy product allergies: No mammal is designed by nature to live of their mother’s milk their whole life. It is a natural weaning process that mammals are put off milk eventually.



    • Interesting article. I’ve been eating pretty much all unprocessed food for a while now and I feel amazing, I think the best I’ve felt in my adult life. Unsure if it’s a direct response to the change or a placebo but either way I’m happy.

      The biggest shock to me is on the occasion that I try something ‘normal’ it’s usually pretty horrid, either from tasting insanely sweet or just pure wrong.

  5. I think a lot of it is to do with the number of chemicals that we now feed ourselves from all the processed food. All those ingredients with single letters followed by numbers.

  6. Hi Sam

    You are spot-on in what you are saying. There has been a dramatic increase in food intolerances and allergies. I am a nutritional researcher that looks at the timeline of the evolution of food change.

    2,000,000 to 12,000 years ago we were eating what is called “The Caveman Diet” This is also called Paleolithic Diet. This was lean meats, fresh seasonal vegetables, berries and fruits. We were Hunter Gatherers.

    During the past 10,000 years mass agriculture, grains and grain products, sugars and sugar products, dairy and dairy products as well as a plethora of processed foods have all been introduced as a regular part of the human diet. We are not eating the foods we are genetically and physiologically adapted to eat (99.9% of our genetic profile is still Paleolithic); and the discordance is an underlying cause for much of the “diseases of civilisation”, “syndrome X”, obesity, and “diseases of old age” that are so epidemic in our society today.

    The past 50 years has seen a massive change in Fast Foods and a huge increase in food related illness.

    Regarding the concern that processed foods, grains and milk promote disease due to their allergenic effects, there are definitely persons who have symptoms of allergies to some of these types of products. Most persons, however, display no symptoms of such intolerances, so it is difficult to make a case that these forms of food are not handled well by the body.

    Conditions such as heart disease and diabetes appear to be related to the quantity of certain nutrients (carbohydrate) rather than their source. For rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions, it is postulated (though not well established) that there is a dietary connection to processed foods, and some individuals may find benefit in using only natural food sources.

    Before the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, all people in one form or another were hunter-gatherers. They gathered various fruits and vegetables to eat, they hunted animals for their meat. Of course, the ratio of meat and vegetables varied with geographic location, climate, and season, people were still hunter-gatherers. Until they began cultivating grains and livestock, they rarely if ever drank milk beyond infancy or ate grains.