Health extremists are cutting all gluten or dairy from their diets under the false pretence they suffer from an allergy, says a leading dietitian.
A staggering quarter of adults believe they have a food allergy, but the true figure sits at just 3 per cent, says consultant dietitian Anna Richards.
She says people who wrongly self-diagnose often have an intolerance that doesn't require cutting complete food groups.
"It breaks my heart because it makes their life so much more complicated than it needs to be. It's nutritionally and socially limiting and often more expensive."
The craze for gluten-free and dairy-free food has seen supermarket shelves and restaurant menus change to accommodate the trend, which has grown as celebrities like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus reportedly follow gluten-free diets for weight loss.
There are no New Zealand figures, but nearly a third of Americans are going gluten-free, according to market research company NPD.
Richards said most gluten-free dieters would cope on a low wheat diet. Similarly, If you are lactose intolerant, you don't need to avoid all dairy.
"When they drink a large milky coffee or milkshake they don't feel very good so they assume they have a dairy allergy and need to avoid every last trace of milk, when in fact a splash in the tea or coffee may have been fine.
"Life doesn't have to be that hard. There is just a big confusion about what is allergy and what is an intolerance."
She will spread this message at next weekend's Gluten Free Food and Allergy Show at the North Shore Events Centre in Auckland.
At previous food shows, she said people were thrilled to discover their diets don't need to be so strict. "It's quite liberating because they might have been fine to have a bit of cheese and milk. All of a sudden life doesn't need to be as limiting or complicated."
Auckland baker Jordan Rondel said the demand for gluten-free and dairy-free treats has shot up since she opened The Caker four years ago. Up to half her orders are now for gluten-free cake.
"I don't get that many people who have coeliac disease and get severe reactions. It's more people catching on to this trend and think gluten-free is healthy," she said.
She swaps out ingredients for healthy alternatives, including coconut milk and almonds.
Rondel said she personally couldn't cut butter or bread from her diet, but it is all about balance.
Richards agrees, saying to live with a food intolerance you control how much of a food component, like lactose, you consume.
"It's more like a budget. As long as you know your budget and live within your budget you are fine."
So why are so many people suffering adverse reactions to wheat and lactose?
We consume a wider variety of foods which irritate the bowel, people are more willing to seek help, and we eat more gluten and dairy in our diets, such as milky coffees, Richards said.
Modern bread is also made with hydrolyzed wheat which triggers bloating because it is harder to digest, she said.
If you suspect an allergy or intolerance, she recommends getting tested for more serious conditions, such as coeliac disease.
What's the difference? A food allergy is driven by the immune system. Most children will outgrow an allergy if the food is gradually introduced to their diet.
A food intolerance is an adverse reaction for some other reason.
Intolerances are linked to flatulence and irritable bowel syndrome and is more common than allergies in adults.
Coeliac disease is a hereditary auto-immune disease estimated to affect 1 per cent of New Zealanders. It carries serious long-term health effects, according to Coeliac NZ.
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