A balancing act
Food intolerance reactions can be unpleasant and inconvenient, but they are rarely serious and, as far as we know, they cause no long-term harm. Their severity depends on the amount of the offending foods you’ve eaten, your degree of sensitivity, and the nature of your symptoms. Once you’ve worked out what your problem foods are, you’ll be able to decide how to balance the benefits of being free from distressing symptoms against the inconvenience of restricting your dietary choices.
Eating out and social occasions
People with food intolerances often have problems when dining out, but you’ll be able to minimize the severity of any reaction by ordering wisely, eating small portions, and being extra careful with what you eat for a few days afterwards.
If you’re planning to go out for a meal, choose a restaurant that offers some plain, simple dishes. Even if the menu doesn’t have suitable choices, you can call beforehand to ask whether a special meal can be prepared for you from your tolerated ingredients or foods. This will also save you the embarrassment of having to ask detailed questions about various dishes on the menu in front of your friends and acquaintances.
If you often dine at the home of close friends or relatives who know you’ve got food intolerances, you can give them a copy of Friendly Food and let them know which recipes you prefer. Beware, though — well meaning hosts will sometimes be tempted to spice up a meal, mistakenly believing you’ll enjoy it more if it has some extra flavour.
At dinner parties, where you don’t wish to offend the host by asking about all the ingredients and refusing what’s being offered, you can simply eat the meat and plain vegetables but leave the gravies, sauces and rich desserts. Wherever you’re planning to go, it sometimes helps to take the edge off your appetite in advance by having a snack before you leave. Then you’ll be less tempted to eat rich, tasty foods and suffer the consequences.
For drinking when you’re out, mineral water or plain water are the safest options if you’re food sensitive. If you want alcohol, choose whisky, gin or vodka (straight, or with ice, water, soda or tonic). Less sensitive individuals can often tolerate half a glass of wine. High quality wines are less likely to cause reactions — a good excuse to choose a more expensive bottle.
Packing or buying your lunch
Stick to fresh rolls, unpreserved bread or plain crackers. For fillings, choose foods you know are safe, such as chicken, roast beef or lamb, egg, lettuce, celery, chives, bean sprouts, pear jam and golden syrup. If you’re not too sensitive, you may be able to tolerate a thin slice of fresh tomato, mild cheese, beetroot, grated carrot or asparagus.
Plan your trip carefully. When going by road, pack suitable foods in a portable cooler, book your overnight accommodation and order your meals in advance. For long flights, take your own snacks, and avoid eating airline meals unless specially prepared. Pack enough food to last you for the first day at your destination, giving you time to find your way around, and try to book accommodation that has facilities for cooking your own food.
Smells & fumes
Some people with food intolerances find that their sense of smell gets more acute on a restricted diet. Strong perfume, car exhaust, petrol fumes, fresh paint, cigarette smoke and other irritant smells and fumes may make you feel ill or give you a headache. Reactions like this can be unpleasant, but are not dangerous and usually resolve quickly after exposure ceases. Predictable exposures such as the the perfume section in department stores, supermarket aisles with cleaning products, petrol stations and underground car parks are easily avoided. If you’re unexpectedly exposed, don’t hang around — leave the area quickly and get some fresh air.
Toiletries, cosmetics and cleaning agents
Strong peppermint and menthol flavours and aromas are derived from natural salicylates, so clean your teeth with unflavoured toothpaste, salt, or bicarbonate of soda (baking soda), and avoid mouthwashes. If you react to preservatives, read the labels of products carefully — most liquid cosmetics and sunscreens are preserved. If you’re smell-sensitive, be careful with perfumes, deodorants, scented soaps, shampoos, conditioners, hair sprays, after-shave lotions and other toiletries. Vinegar and bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) are alternatives to strong-smelling detergents and bathroom cleaning agents.
Indoor air can become quite polluted with volatile chemicals released from carpets and underlays, chipboard and other furnishing materials, cooking odours and cigarette smoke. Make sure your home is well ventilated with fresh air. Avoid using products with a strong aroma such as air fresheners, concentrated detergents, perfumed candles, incense, eucalyptus oil, and massage and aromatherapy oils. If you feel unwell in your home environment and you’re not sure why, check for hidden damp or mould, gas leaks and other sources of irritant smells or fumes.
If you’re planning to paint or renovate your home, and you’re smell-sensitive, choose your materials carefully. Watch out for oil-based paints, glues, floor varnishes, chipboard and treated timbers, all of which can emit volatile chemicals for quite some time when fresh or new. It’s best not to handle these materials yourself, and you may even consider staying somewhere else for a few days or weeks while the work is being done, and airing out your home before going back. If you’re not sure about a particular material or product, ask for a sample, take it home and see what happens after you’ve had it in your bedroom or living room for a few days.
People with food intolerances often react adversely to medicines. It’s best only to take essential medications prescribed by your doctor. If you’re salicylate sensitive, anti-inflammatory drugs and aspirin-containing pain killers should be avoided — paracetamol and codeine are suitable alternatives in most cases.
The colouring agents used in tablets and capsules can be a problem for people who are sensitive to food colourings. If there are no suitable white alternatives, surface colourings can be washed off tablets (by rubbing them gently under running tap water) and capsules can be opened, emptied onto a spoon and taken with some maple syrup or golden syrup.
Antibiotics are of no benefit against viruses and should only be taken for bacterial infections — if your doctor is uncertain, a swab can be taken and cultured before you start any treatment.
Dental anaesthetic injections usually contain preservatives and can sometimes cause unpleasant reactions. If this happens, ask your dentist to use plain lignocaine. For major surgical procedures, general anaesthetics are rarely a problem but the premedications and post-operative pain killers can cause distressing side effects. Discuss the choice of medications with your anaesthetist beforehand.
Many antacids and children’s syrups are coloured, flavoured and/or preserved. Check with your doctor to find suitable alternatives if necessary. Cough syrups, throat lozenges, menthol, oil of wintergreen, eucalyptus oil, liniments, massage oils, essential oils and most herbal remedies contain natural salicylates or closely related substances which frequently cause reactions in people with food intolerances, and should be avoided. If you’ve got a sore throat, gargle with warm salt water. If you need them, over-the-counter cold and flu preparations (with paracetamol, codeine and antihistamines) and nose sprays (with pseudoephedrine) are generally well tolerated if used as directed. Make sure you see your doctor if symptoms persist.