Learn your triggers and how to find relief.

A food intolerance can turn the joy of eating into a source of misery — think gas, stomach pain, and worse.

Up to 20 percent of Americans suffer from food intolerance, so it’s important to understand these conditions and learn to avoid common triggers.

Regional One Health’s Teresa Ford, CFNP, a primary care provider at Kirby Primary Care, is sharing what patients need to know.

“A food intolerance is different from a food allergy,” she said. “Food allergies involve the immune system reacting to something you eat. Food intolerances happen when your body has a hard time digesting a certain food, and that causes symptoms.”

Ford said patients should ask themselves several questions:

What are my symptoms?

Since food intolerances occur when the body has trouble digesting a certain food, symptoms are mostly digestive in nature — stomachache, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, gas, and bloating. Some people also report headaches and fatigue.

That differs from food allergies, Ford said. Food allergies can impact your whole body and cause digestive woes plus difficulty breathing, rashes, and chest pain.

Do I consume the likely culprits?

The most common food intolerance is lactose intolerance, or trouble digesting dairy products. It leads to stomach pain and cramps, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Fructose, a sugar commonly found in fruits; and food additives like preservatives, food coloring, and MSG can cause similar issues.

Intolerance to gluten, a protein in grain and cereal products, also causes digestive issues, but they can be joined by joint pain, brain fog, headaches, and fatigue. Ford noted gluten intolerance is different from celiac disease, which involves an autoimmune response to gluten.

How can I find out what’s wrong?

Ford helps rule out other causes by testing for food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and other conditions.

“If we suspect a food intolerance, we help the patient keep a diary of what they ate, how much they ate, and when they experienced symptoms,” she said. “Looking for trends can identify what might be causing your discomfort.”

Ford noted it might take a few hours to experience symptoms, and those symptoms can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

How do I alleviate symptoms?

Once you have an idea of what food causes problems, the best thing to do is avoid it or cut back on how much you eat. With food intolerances, the amount you consume impacts the severity of your symptoms.

Often, you can find alternatives — for example, there are many milk, yogurt, and cheese products that are lactose-free. There are also supplements you can take that support good digestion.

Ford said knowledge is power when it comes to addressing food intolerances. Patients should learn to read food labels carefully, ask how foods are prepared at restaurants, keep an eye on what’s in seasonings and condiments, and pay attention to how their body feels.

Teresa Ford, CFNP is a certified family nurse practitioner at Regional One Health. She sees adult and pediatric patients at Kirby Primary Care for preventative care, the treatment of illness and injury, management of chronic conditions, 12 and other primary care needs. For an appointment with Ford, call 901.515.5350.