BEIRUT: Food is a source of sustenance for all. Food is also a source of comfort and an opportunity to socialize, especially in Lebanon. Yet for the country’s residents suffering from food allergies or intolerances, the daily navigations of food choices can mean the difference not only between pleasure and pain, but also life and death.
As nutrition experts advised an auditorium full of Lebanese dietitians and food vendors at this week’s conference “Food Intolerance: Friend or Foes?” held on Universite St. Joseph’s campus, testing for allergies and intolerances can show which foods to avoid.
“Food becomes the enemy,” said Alexandre Allouche, managing director of Geno-med, the Lebanon-based medical devices vendor and testing firm sponsoring the event.
“Testing helps keep people from getting this fixated idea on their food. They can say ‘I’ve done the test, I now know which foods are contributing to it, I can eat happily and take those foods out,’” Allouche said.
Relative to allergy testing, food intolerance testing is still a new science, Allouche said. “The point here is to re-emphasize the scientific part of food intolerance. We need to put it back in that box.”
He added that nutritionists must know the difference between food allergies and food intolerances in order to properly test patients and accurately advise them on which foods to avoid.
Many who suffer from reactions to foods confuse allergies with intolerances, yet it is important for dietitians to distinguish this difference, as treatment depends on first administering the correct method of testing.
Such tests, proponents say, can help patients understand the root causes of their symptoms and make informed choices about eliminating foods that cause harm and substituting in foods that will help them heal.
Food allergies tend to be severe, caused by an extreme immune system response to food introduced.
Food intolerances are milder by comparison, but far more common. Immune system antibodies adversely respond to food that the body cannot digest or metabolize. There are almost 20 symptoms related to food intolerance and allergies, spanning mental, physical and emotional health. Among them are bloating, diarrhea, migraines, depression and anxiety, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Dr. Carla Irani, MD, attending physician of internal medicine at Hotel Dieu de France Hospital, delivered a lecture on food allergies at the conference. She said that they were the No. 1 cause of anaphylaxis visits to the emergency room.
She often sees patients with allergies to dairy products, shellfish and eggs. Adverse reactions to sesame seeds are particularly concerning, given the high consumption in Lebanon and the region, and the danger of anaphylactic shock.
“We have a cultural problem in Lebanon,” Irani said, citing denial of food allergy diagnosis, particularly in children. “Parents are afraid to prevent kids from having what they want to eat.”
She added that people lack an understanding of just how important food allergy diagnoses are. “Grandma, for example, may give a [lactose intolerant] child milk when he comes to visit, not meaning harm,” she said.
The rise of allergic reactions to food could be due to early exposure to antibiotics, which may lead to increased vulnerability to food allergies later in life, Irani explained.
Lecturers and organizers emphasized that food intolerance testing should be further developed and used, as allergy testing has been, because it can reduce the reliance on medication and equip patients with important knowledge.
Nicky Ester, U.K.-based nutritionist for Cambridge Nutritional Sciences, offered a positive way of viewing food intolerances and corresponding testing.
She said: “Food intolerance are both foe and friend because they are a foot in the door for a person on the pathway to achieving good health.”
Testing, which involves a blood test and corresponding report, will not cure intolerances, but the benefits of knowing and removing aggravating foods can make a dramatic difference in daily well-being.
Ester explained through the following example: “If a woman has migraines nearly the entire month and she does the IgG [food intolerance] test, and her symptoms are reduced by 75 percent, you have given someone their life back.”
One condition arising from the effects of food intolerance is leaky gut syndrome, the result of chronic inflammation, which weakens intestinal walls and junctions, and causes food to seep through the vulnerable tissues.
“This can lead to diabetes, heart disease and cancer,” said Dr. Walid Khairallah, manager of Green Clinics in Beirut. He advised eliminating trigger foods from the diet as a first step to healing this increasingly prevalent condition.
In his lecture on food intolerances, he explained how destruction of intestinal flora and inflammation are caused by an over-reliance on NSAIDS pain relief medications such as ibuprofen, as well as a range of other substances, such as antibiotics, oral contraceptive pills, sugar and alcohol.
“The faster the drinking of alcohol, the worse it is,” Khairallah said, describing the destruction process of the intestinal barrier.
Healing involves introducing good bacteria and the reintroduction of meat stock and bone in diets. Long a staple in cooking throughout human history, animal stock has all but disappeared for artificial alternatives. He also recommended the use of healthy plant and animal based fats.
Drawing from his experience in witnessing common agricultural practices in Lebanon, Khairallah said that the improper use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables contribute to chronic inflammation in those who consume them, as does wheat treated with antibiotics to maximize production and extend storage life.
As in most of the world, food intolerance testing in Lebanon is not covered by insurance plans. Depending on the level of detail, testing can run from $200-$500.
In order to receive such a test, patients would need a referral from their dietitian.
In spite of such obstacles, nutritionists and testing advocates say that rising public awareness may push those suffering from intolerances to seek clarity and knowledge to combat causes, instead of merely medicating symptoms.
“Why take medication when you can eliminate the offending food?” Allouche said.