How do I know if my child has a food intolerance?

A food intolerance is a reaction to a substance in the food you are eating. Unlike food allergies, food intolerances are not caused by your immune system reacting to the food. Some people can cope with small amounts of foods they’re intolerant to and they generally have fewer symptoms than people with allergies. Food intolerance reactions are generally less severe than an allergic reaction.

Babies guts are quite immature and having some sensitivities and intolerances are not uncommon. If you feel your child is uncomfortable or in pain, particularly after they eat, then they may have an intolerance.

A true allergy is a reaction of the body’s immune system to a protein in foods, such as wheat, milk, eggs, soy or peanuts. The most common symptoms are wheezing or other respiratory symptoms such as hives or vomiting. For people with a severe allergy a reaction can be triggered by ingestion, touch or inhalation. Food allergies in children is more common when there is a family history of eczema, allergy, asthma or hay fever.

A food intolerance is difficulty digesting the sugar in a food and symptoms are usually digestive such as gas, bloating, diarrhoea and stomach cramps (though some parents report rashes associated with food intolerance). An intolerance is uncomfortable but it is not dangerous. It can also be hard to diagnose food intolerance because the reactions to the food itself aren’t immediate.

Lactose intolerance is the most common issue and occurs when people don’t have the enzyme required to digest lactose (which is the sugar in milk).  A lactose intolerance is actually the norm for people who come from areas of the world where cow’s milk wasn’t traditionally a part of their regular diet (such as Asia and Africa). Sometimes children who start out able to digest milk will actually develop an intolerance for cow’s milk between the ages of three and five.

Celiac disease is a reaction of the bowel to gluten which is the protein found in such foods as wheat, rye, barley and oats. Toddlers can get celiac disease and apparently it’s much more common in Irish, Indo-European, Italian, English and Scandinavian people. Celiac disease can be treated very effectively with a gluten-free diet.

Fructose intolerance is an inability to handle cane or fruit sugar. Those with the intolerance will have digestive symptoms so if you have a child who eats a lot fruit or drinks a lot of juice, you will find they can get a stomach ache because of the overload of fructose.

If you suspect your child has a food sensitivity, the first step is to see your GP. You can also do some homework in trying to identify foods your child has consistently consumed when symptoms occurred and also foods they consume in large quantities.

However, it is not a good idea to put your child on an elimination diet without supervision from your doctor. Children can get malnourished very quickly and you don’t want that to happen. If you think your child’s sensitivity is lactose, then you can try a lactose free formula or, if you are breastfeeding, you can eliminate dairy from your diet to see if that helps. There are also tests your doctor you do to confirm this diagnosis.

The good news is that children will often grow out of their food intolerance by the age of 4 or 5.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.