Fact or fad? The rise in food intolerances and dietary requirements

Fact or fad? The rise in food intolerances and dietary requirements

A few years ago, someone with a restrictive diet would have a hard time finding suitable restaurant fare in Australia. But recently, we’ve seen a spike in dietary-friendly food options across most major cities and even some smaller towns.

Terms that used to be met with confusion or disdain (e.g. vegan, coeliac, low FODMAP) are now widely recognised and frequently used on menus and food labels throughout the country.

When you consider the statistics, it’s easy to see why.

Australia has one of the highest allergy rates in the world, with Melbourne leading the way – and that’s only accounting for diagnosed allergies.

If we included all those with self-diagnosed sensitivities or intolerances, the rates would be much higher.

A CSIRO study from 2016 shows that one in three Australians have eliminated meat, dairy or gluten from their diet on their own accord.

But what still remains fuzzy is whether food allergies and intolerances are actually becoming more common or if we’re simply more aware of them.

To answer this question, we must first distinguish the two terms.

Allergy vs intolerance: what’s the difference?


Nutritionist Samantha Gemmell said that allergies are reactions caused by the immune system. They can range in severity and can manifest in a number of physical responses, from hives to anaphylaxis.

Symptoms typically occur immediately after eating the food, so they are easy to identify.

Intolerance or sensitivity

According to Ms Gemmell, intolerances or sensitivities are essentially the same thing: reactions that occur in the digestive tract. They occur when you aren’t able to digest or process a particular food or a chemical within it.

Unlike allergies, symptoms of intolerance can take up to 48 hours to present themselves.

They can vary from food to food and person to person, but often include the following:

  • Bloating or cramping
  • Constipation, gas or diarrhoea
  • Headaches
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Lethargy
  • Brain fog.

While allergies are more recognisable, diagnosable and easier to tackle, the same is not true for intolerances, said Kate Save, a practicing dietitian and the CEO and co-founder of Be Fit Food.

“They can be caused by changes in the gut microbiome; they can be caused by stress. It’s not always a particular food or food group,” Ms Save said.

For that reason, it’s particularly important that those showing symptoms receive professional assessment before people try to eliminate food groups from their diet.

“When people cut out whole food groups, they compromise other areas of the diet,” Ms Save said.

“As boring as it is, balance and moderation is honestly the key to improving any dietary intolerance.”

Fact or fad? The rise in food intolerances and dietary requirements

Food intolerances can cause gut issues like stomach cramps and bloating.

There is no ‘one-solution-fits-all’

Ms Save said that “a lot of people want a label so they can justify not eating certain things”.

As someone with a history of disordered eating, this resonates with me – and I’m not alone.

Females aged 18 – 30 make up nearly half of all Australians who have cut certain foods from their diet which, coincidentally or not, is also the group most at risk for eating disorders.

I’ve seen first-hand that embracing dietary restrictions as a preference, rather than a necessity, can cause more harm than good.

Not only can self-imposed diets result in physical concerns, but they can also take power away from those with diagnosed conditions. Closed-mindedness about the state of someone’s condition can do the same.

Food intolerances and allergies can be difficult to understand for those who haven’t experienced them, but they are no joke.

If you don’t have a food intolerance or allergy yourself but know someone who does, consideration is key. Avoid judgement about someone’s dietary needs, and when dining out, choose restaurants with plenty of dietary-friendly options.

Food is also highly personal; it carries a heavy weight, both physically and socially, and the last thing someone with a dietary restriction wants is to feel isolated.

On the flip side, if you think that you have a food allergy or intolerance, receiving medical attention is the first step. Not only will a doctor be able to diagnose you, but they’ll also help ensure that you receive proper nutritional guidance specifically suited to your needs.

“Every single person has a different microbiome,” Ms Save said.

“Their diet needs to be as individual as their fingerprint. There’s never going to be a one-solution-fits-all.”

Whether you have a food allergy and need to avoid that item at all costs or an intolerance that requires you to handle said food on occasion, a nuanced and personalised approach to diet is the best way to achieve nutritional balance.

Quincy Malesovas

Quincy Malesovas

Quincy Malesovas is a writer based in Melbourne and bred in the United States.

She is passionate about fostering cultural and social awareness through her writing and research. She also hosts an experimental supper club called GRUEL.