Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Food Allergies

Real food allergies can be terrifying and life threatening. It takes only one 20,000th part of a nut to be a potential killer in somebody with severe nut allergies.

People with coeliac disease, an allergy to gluten which is present in most cereals can become severely ill just by using a knife which has previously been used to slice a loaf of bread. The same is true with fish and shellfish allergies but that said there are now around 30 percent of the population – rather more women than men – who believe they suffer from food allergies.

The real truth is that it's less than 2 percent. The others are either deluding themselves or being deluded by dubious allergy testing methods. It's my opinion that food allergies are in fact the new eating disorder as no-one's going to argue with you when you go out to dinner, look at the menu and say bring me a salad, I'm allergic to everything else. It seems as if every other woman I meet as a patient or socially has given up wheat and dairy products because they're allergic to them. This is dangerous poppycock as women need the calcium of dairy products and we all need the wonderful energy-giving and protective benefits of wholegrain cereals.

I recently saw two women friends who'd both been for allergy tests and gone on to quite ridiculous diets.

Sally is 30 with two children. 'I got red patches on my face, headaches and dry scaly skin on my hands, which all came and went, but seemed worse after eating eggs or drinking lager. Mary had an electronic allergy test in the health food shop so I tried one.

They said I had Candida yeast infection because of too much chocolate and other bad things. According to the machine I had to avoid mushrooms, yeast extracts, cheese, eggs and yeast and also shouldn't eat bread, curry, curry powder, sugar, alcohol or yoghurt. Fruit's okay if washed.'

Her friend Mary is 49 and has always been healthy but after a sudden shock she started getting flushes, palpitations and mood swings. 'At work I'm the secretary, do the accounts, make tea, answer phones and run around after 30 men. Some days I'd just stand in the office and couldn't decide what to do. I thought I was going insane and was relieved to be told it was all due to food intolerance when I had an electronic test in the local health shop.

I was advised to avoid all corn and dairy products, oranges, cola and anything with glucose syrup or E numbers.'

There's no evidence that this test has any scientific value. It worries me that people without accredited qualifications are giving dietary advice which could lead to serious nutritional deficiencies. Food intolerance, especially to wheat and dairy products, isn't that uncommon, but the Candida story is seldom proved to be real. When it is, it requires specialist treatment, not by someone with an unproven gadget in a shop.

Both their diets are worryingly deficient of essential nutrients. With no proper follow-up after the initial advice and no qualified nutritionist or naturopath guiding their eating, they've been left to fend for themselves.

Mary's diet:
Breakfast – toast with soya spread, black coffee
Mid-morning – Ryvita and banana
Lunch – jacket potato with soya spread, salad, black tea
Evening – pasta, salad, cauliflower, brussels, carrots, black tea, Rice Crispies and soya milk

This thousand calories is less than half she needs. That's why she's not losing weight. Her body thinks there's a famine and has slowed her metabolism. Not enough protein and desperately short of calcium, iron, zinc, selenium, vitamins B12 and D. She's almost certainly anaemic and a prime candidate for osteoporosis.

Get more calories from wholemeal bread, rice, more pasta and beans. She needs more fruit, red meat, chickpeas, humus, nuts, seeds and dried fruits, to boost missing minerals, and oily fish for vitamin D.

Sally's diet:
Breakfast – two teas with semi-skimmed milk
At work – 2 soda farls, Flora, tea
Lunch – jacket potato, mixed salad, tea
Afternoon – 2 Ryvita with Flora
Evening – oven chips, grilled bacon, salad

1600 rather than the 2000 needed. Enough protein, but lacking calcium, iron, selenium, vitamins B2, B12, A and D.

She tolerates semi-skimmed milk in tea, so there's no reason to avoid low fat natural live yoghurt or low fat soft cheeses for boost calcium. She needs oily fish for vitamin D - tinned sardines have calcium too. Tinned beans in salad or bean and root vegetable casserole will add variety, and avoiding bread because it's made with yeast is nonsense. The yeasts used for bread, wine or beer are different to the one that causes thrush, and avoiding the other foods is like telling someone allergic to strawberries not to eat apples because they're both fruit.

The allergy test taken by Sally and Mary is based on the use of a 'Vega' machine, developed from techniques of electrical acupuncture in the 1950s. There is only anecdotal evidence that this method of allergy testing works and the general medical and scientific opinion is that it's 'magic dressed up as science'.

Food allergies are a convenient way of explaining many health problems and there is an army of practitioners who claim to be able to change your life by diagnosing allergies with a variety of highly questionable techniques.

Pulse diagnosis claims to diagnose intolerances and allergies from measuring changes in the patient's pulse rate. The pulse is taken before eating the suspect food and the measurement repeated at 10, 20, 40 and 60 minutes after. Any increase or decrease of the pulse rate which exceeds 10 beats a minute is claimed to be a sign of allergy. No proper clinical studies have ever proved this to be correct.

Dowsing is the ancient art of divining and usually applied to water. Today there are practitioners who use a pendulum which tunes in to energy fields created by the body. The practitioner hangs the pendulum over a particular part of the body or a food and asks the pendulum a question, 'Is this patient allergic to this food?' If the pendulum swings clockwise it means yes, anticlockwise is no. I find it extraordinary that so many members of the public allow themselves to be put on ridiculous diets on the basis of this type of mumbo-jumbo.

Hair and blood analysis are more examples of bogus allergy testing. A snippet of hair or a spot of blood on a piece of blotting paper are sent to the practitioner who dowses them with a pendulum and – for a substantial fee of course – will send you a list of everything you're allergic to. And often a package of expensive medicines and supplements which they claim will cure your allergies.

Voice diagnosis. There are people who claim to detect allergies simply by speaking to patients on the telephone and 'picking up their vibrational energy'. Again for a substantial fee diagnosis is made, pills and potions prescribed and subsequent phone calls charged by the minute.

Biofeedback allergy testing which claims that toxin imbalances reduce the efficiency of the body and can detect allergies which lead to exhaustion and poor health. Sensors are attached to the forehead, wrists and ankles that produce readings which enable the practitioner to diagnose food allergies. Again, no scientific evidence to support the claims.

Applied kinesiology. This technique uses muscle testing to find allergies. The practitioner tests the strength of a large muscle – the thigh or upper arm – then places a glass phial of the substance to be tested on the patient's belly button and tests the muscle again. If muscle strength is weaker then the patient is allergic to that substance. Although this sounds outrageous and there is no clinical evidence, there are a very few highly experienced practitioners who seem to get reliable results. It takes extensive training and years of practice to be expert but many practitioners have no background medical education – conventional or complementary and have only done a weekend course. So beware.

Even the recognised scientific methods of allergy testing are not always reliable when it comes to food allergies, and even less so when the problem is food intolerance. The traditional patch tests done by scratching the skin and applying extracts from a range of different foods, pollens and other substances will only determine whether your skin is sensitive to that particular substance. And even a violent skin reaction doesn't mean guaranteed problems when you eat it.

Medical blood tests which measure the way blood cells respond to potential allergens are probably a more reliable indicator of food allergies but the only certain way of diagnosing food intolerance is the exclusion diet.

The 19 permissible foods are:

Sunflower oil, Trout, Lamb, Venison, Cod, Hake, Plaice, Sole, Salmon, Mackerel, Pears, Kiwi, Sweet potatoes, Carrots, Chinese bean sprouts, Parsnips, Turnips, Swede, Marrow, Courgettes. Plus at least four pints of water each day and very weak herb or Chinese green tea without milk.

After two weeks introduce other foods in this order: Tap water, Potatoes, Cow's milk, Yeast, Tea, Rye, Butter, Onions, Eggs, Porridge Oats, Coffee, Chocolate, Barley, Citrus fruits, Corn, Cow's cheese, White wine, Shellfish, Natural cow's milk yoghurt, Vinegar, Wheat and Nuts.

Only try one new food every two days and if there is a reaction, don't try it again for at least a month. Carry on with the list when any symptoms stop. It's really important that you keep a careful diary so that you can check on your progress.


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