Food allergies and intolerances have seen a rise over the past decade, but there’s also a greater awareness than ever before. Tunbridge Wells-based functional nutritional practitioner Fleur Brown talks us through the key things we should know…

Can you briefly explain what functional nutrition is?
Functional nutrition is a very personalised approach to helping clients to resolve their health problems. It addresses the causes, not the symptoms that a person is experiencing, and respects the fact that the causes for each client’s health problems may be very different, although the diagnosis (e.g. IBS or MS or Rheumatoid Arthritis) may be the same.
Once the possible contributory factors to a client’s ill health are discovered through analysis of their diet and the results of non-invasive tests that they’ve undertaken, a nutritional programme is devised to help the client recover their health.The programme includes dietary changes, as well as specifically targeted supplements when relevant.

Do people often underestimate the importance of nutrition when it comes to their wellbeing?
Yes, very often people don’t make the connection between what they eat and their wellbeing – and fail to realise that every single part of their body is made from the food that they eat – until they become ill. Then they may start to consider that, perhaps, changes to what they’re eating could be necessary to help them recover their health. Many doctors also underestimate the importance of nutrition and its powerful effect on health.

What’s the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?
A true allergy is often present from birth and involves antibodies called IgE antibodies being produced to allergens. It’s always present in the person’s body, and total avoidance needs to be implemented, or serious or even fatal consequences may result, such as anaphylactic shock from ingesting peanuts or eggs.
It can also involve a genetic predisposition, such as an allergy to dairy products due to a lack of lactase enzymes in the gut. These enzymes are needed to digest the lactose in milk.

An intolerance is usually caused by overconsumption of a food, e.g. wheat or dairy, and involves the production of antibodies to the culprit food(s), which are called IgG antibodies. An intolerance can also be due to imbalances in the gut. It’s not a permanent issue, and can often be resolved with avoidance of the food for several months and, where necessary, working on improving gut function.

With allergies and intolerances, what are some of the common foods that affect people?
Peanuts, tree nuts (brazils or cashews, for example), eggs and dairy products are examples of classic allergens that affect people. Common food intolerances include wheat, gluten, yeast, eggs and dairy products.

If someone suspects they have a food intolerance, what are the first steps they should take?
Avoiding the suspect food for three weeks and seeing how they feel. Then, reintroducing the food and seeing whether they have reactions to it or not.

Can you suddenly develop an intolerance or allergy, and if so, what causes this to happen?
Classic food allergies are generally present from birth, but can manifest as you get older and worsen as you get older. Intolerances can suddenly develop due to over-consumption of the food (the straw that breaks the camel’s back), or imbalances in the gut, such as ‘leaky gut’.

There’s a big trend towards people going gluten or dairy-free – is cutting these out healthy, and is it necessary?
It’s necessary only if these foods are having a negative effect on one’s health – in which case, it’s a healthy thing to do.

How long does it take for an allergen to leave the body?
In the case of a classic allergen – and the reaction is severe – it can take minutes to leave the body if one has an epinephrine-filled syringe, which allows them to inject the medication into their leg, to immediately reduce their anaphylaxis symptoms. If one is able to treat a reaction in this manner, it shouldn’t last more than a few minutes.
However, if the reaction isn’t severe, the reaction may take hours or days to leave the body, and manifest with symptoms such as hives, nausea, sneezing, excessive catarrh and watery eyes.

How easy is it for you to spot what’s going on with someone’s health?
As I’ve been in clinical practice for over 25 years, I may suspect that certain physical symptoms could be signs of imbalances in someone’s body. For example, if someone has permanent dark circles under their eyes, it could mean that they have a wheat intolerance, or if they have chronic rhinitis, or mucous production and nasal congestion, it could mean that they have a dairy intolerance. If a client’s nails have many white spots on them, I may suspect that they have a zinc defi ciency, or if their lower eyelid is very pale, they may be defi cient in iron.
Additionally, I could suspect from talking to my client during a consultation that contributory factors to their health issues could be underlying chronic stress, or imbalances in their gut, such as an overgrowth of bacterial yeast or parasites, or having low beneficial bacteria. All these factors can be verified and confirmed or not by tests.

There seems to be a lot of confusing information around about healthy foods and ‘superfoods’ – which foods are top of your healthy list, and what benefits do they offer?
There are indeed lots of conflicting views on what foods are health, and some superfoods can be ‘flavour of the month’, to only then disappear off the list when a new superfood appears. My top and constant recommendations to clients are to:
a) Eat at least seven servings of vegetables/salads per day
b) Eat the rainbow daily – ensure that they have a wide variety of colours of foods in their daily diet, to ensure that they get a full spectrum of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. To give some examples, this could mean: Blue/purple from blueberries, plums, figs, purple sprouting broccoli and aubergines; red from radishes, beetroot, red apples and red peppers; yellow/orange from sweet potatoes, yellow and orange peppers, pineapple and carrots; green from spinach, kale, celery, green beans and avocados; and white from cauliflower, mushrooms, turnips and peaches.
c) Eat plenty of good fats daily to keep brain function optimised – from foods such as oily fish, nuts and nut butters, olive and coconut oils and avocados.

Veganism has become bigger than ever – what are your thoughts on a vegan diet?
I greatly respect that people who’ve made an ethical choice not to eat foods from an animal/insect source (e.g. honey from bees). In my clinical practice over the past 25 years, I’ve never seen a client make a full recovery from illness when on a vegan diet. Therefore, personally in clinical practice, I don’t recommend eating a vegan diet to my clients, who come to me to help them improve their ill health.
Vegans need to ensure that they don’t become deficient in vital nutrients such as B12, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids and iron, by testing their levels through their GP from time to time, and taking a vegan-based supplement if necessary.

What supplements would you suggest taking?
In my opinion, the most important to take are: A good-quality multivitamin/mineral daily, as our foods are generally very deplete in minerals and vitamins, due to modern farming methods and the erosion of nutrients in the soil; if not eating oily fish at least three to four times per week, an omega 3 supplement; a Vitamin D supplement (levels of vitamin D can be checked by one’s GP) if deficient in this nutrient, as it’s vital for optimal health, and most people in the UK are deficient in this vitamin; and a probiotic to help keep the gut and mind healthy.

Fleur Brown is the author of Beat Chronic Disease: The Nutrition Solution. www.fleurbrownnutrition.co.uk