Food intolerances affect your digestive system. People who suffer from an intolerance, or sensitivity, can’t break down certain foods. They develop gas, diarrhea and other problems. An intolerance or food sensitivity is inconvenient but not life-threatening.
Food intolerance means your gut is sensitive to certain foods and can’t tolerate them. When you eat these foods, you may experience uncomfortable symptoms like gas, diarrhea and abdominal pain.
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Food intolerance, or food sensitivity, is not the same thing as having a food allergy.
A food intolerance:
A food allergy:
Common food sensitivities include:
People with food intolerances often don’t make enough of a particular enzyme that the digestive system needs to break down a certain food or ingredient. Experts aren’t sure why some people develop food intolerances.
Certain gastrointestinal conditions may make you more prone to food sensitivities. These conditions include:
Symptoms of a food intolerance include:
A hydrogen breath test can detect lactose intolerance. During this test, you drink a liquid that has lactose. Then you breathe into a balloon-like container every 30 minutes for a few hours. If you’re lactose intolerant, the undigested lactose will cause high levels of hydrogen in your breath. You may also develop symptoms from drinking the lactose solution.
There isn’t a test for gluten sensitivity or histamine intolerance. An allergy test can detect food allergies but not a food intolerance. Your healthcare provider may ask you to keep a food diary to track meals and symptoms.
You may also try an elimination diet to remove certain foods from your diet for two to six weeks. If symptoms go away during this time — and then return when you start eating the food again — you may have a food intolerance.
You may need to change your diet to limit or eliminate problem foods. Many people with food intolerances find that consuming small amounts of food causes few symptoms if any. When symptoms occur, over-the-counter medicines like antacids or antidiarrheals can help.
People who are lactose intolerant can consume lactose-free milk and dairy products. You can also buy lactase enzymes at drugstores. You can take lactase pills before consuming dairy products or add lactase drops directly to milk to break down the lactose.
People who are lactose intolerant may not get enough calcium and vitamin D if they completely cut out dairy products. You can take supplements or use over-the-counter lactase enzymes to consume dairy products without getting an upset stomach.
People who cut back on products with gluten may need to eat more fresh vegetables, fruit and gluten-free whole grains to make sure they get enough fiber and other nutrients such as B vitamins in their diets, which are important for health.
Food intolerances tend to be lifelong. Most people can manage symptoms if they reduce or cut out foods that cause digestive problems. Food intolerance may be an inconvenience (and the symptoms unpleasant), but it isn’t a life-threatening problem like a food allergy.
You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A food intolerance can cause stomach upset and other digestive problems after you consume certain foods or drinks. Having a food intolerance isn’t the same as having a food allergy. Food allergies cause an immune system response that can be life-threatening. Most people with food intolerances can have small amounts of those foods without distressing symptoms. A food diary and elimination diet can help determine if you have a food intolerance.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/11/2021.
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