A recent study from the Royal Adelaide hospital has confirmed it: As you age, certain foods you may once have enjoyed may now cause unwanted side effects.
Head of Clinical Immunology at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Associate Professor Bob Heddle, says the changes in your body’s responses to foods consumed can be both physical and mental, but states that there is solid proof that favourite foods can cause intolerances over time.
"It's quite clear from objective studies that the frequency of reported food intolerance is higher than the food intolerance that can be documented when you scientifically challenge the people, but it is also true that there are changes that can occur through life," he says.
In general, many adults have compromised digestive function thanks to stress, alcohol intake and the use of medications such as aspirin. Additionally, the production of digestive enzymes becomes sluggish with age so foods that you would normally have no trouble digesting soon become the cause of an upset stomach.
"Most functions do decline with age and it would be very surprising if there wasn't some change in the ability to handle large amounts of protein or starch or fibre," explains Prof Heddle. Common culprits for digestive upsets include lactose, fructose and wheat.
Can’t handle your milkshake? The good news is that you’re not alone. As you age, your gut is held hostage to biochemical changes that can leave you with the inability to process large amounts of dairy. The result? Bloating, flatulence, cramps and sometimes diarrhoea.
According to Prof Beddle, lactose acts as a laxative if you are intolerant, so if you’re feeling the need to go more than usual it might be time to cut the lattes.
While lactose-reduced products are available, older Australians — women, in particular — do need to be wary of cutting out much-needed calcium. If you feel that dairy is causing digestive problems, try switching from milk to yoghurt or seek help from your GP to ensure you’re still getting enough vitamins to keep your body strong.
Fructose, or fruit sugar, is a simple sugar found in many plants. It is one of the three dietary monosaccharides, along with glucose and galactose, that are absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion. It is an essential energy source and, in small quantities, is able to be processed by the body with ease.
However, modern diets are commonly high in fructose — sugar is added to all manner of packaged foods — and while this may not have been a problem when you were in your hey-day, as you age these sugars can become harder to process.
It’s not just packaged foods you need to avoid either. Natural sugars found in some fruits can unbalance the small intestine, resulting in discomfort. Fruit juice, dried fruit, large quantities of berries, honey and some tree fruits such as apples and pears are culprits but this doesn’t mean you need to avoid fruit altogether.
If you suspect a fructose intolerance, cut out processed foods and keep a food journal to jot down what you’ve eaten and any unwanted gastric experiences. Bananas, blueberries, kiwifruits and citrus fruits are all good alternatives to the traditional apple-a-day or, if you need chocolate to get you through the day then opt for a small square of dark chocolate instead.
While you might not have coeliac disease — very few people are diagnosed with it — you may have an intolerance to wheat that is making its presence felt now you’re getting older.
According to Prof Heddle, it is not unusual for people to describe mild discomfort after consuming wheat-based products — a side-effect that may increase as you age.
While coeliac disease and wheat intolerance are often linked, recent research has isolated the wheat allergy, making milk wheat allergies more common than once thought. "A recent study in Melbourne has shown that there is truly a group of people who are intolerant to wheat who don’t have coeliac disease," he explains. "If you suspect you are intolerant of wheat, you should at least go to the doctor and have a discussion," he says.
When it comes to increased intolerances as you age, prevention is truly better than treatment.
If you find yourself suffering from discomfort after eating a particular food, remove it from your diet. If it is a group of foods that makes you suffer — such as dairy or wheat — then it’s worth checking with your GP to rule out any underlying problems.
"If it doesn't get better when you exclude the foods that you think are doing it, I think from middle years on it is probably important to go to the doctor," suggests Prof Heddle.
Keep a food journal to help you find any potential food intolerances and try to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet free from processing and pesticides before you embark on any over-the-counter remedies.
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