With intolerance diagnoses on the rise in the city, Holly Sands visits Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre to learn more, and get tested herself.
It is no secret that all the best things in life contain either flour, eggs, or a combination of both: think bread baskets, ice cream sundaes and huge slabs of Victoria sponge cake. Imagine my dismay then to be told I must strike these from my diet for 12 long months.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) food allergies seem to be on the rise in all industrialised countries and food intolerances are believed to be even more common. With ever more celebrities jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon and health-conscious men and women the world over following suit, supermarkets – including those in Dubai – have rushed to stock products that meet the increasing variety of special dietary requirements.
In Dubai, the number of people opting for food intolerance testing appears very much on the rise. Dr Maria Ridao Alonso at the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre in Zabeel notes that the number of clients she sees for blood tests has indeed swelled. ‘At the moment I do an average of 70 food intolerance tests a month on new patients – when I started doing testing here around eight years ago I would typically get between ten and 20.’
It’s Dr Maria who delivers me the news from my own test, which, out of the 269 foods tested, reveals intolerances to 17, including pumpkin, leek, carrot, coconut and poppy seeds, which I’m instructed to avoid for six months. It is also revealed that I am gluten and egg-intolerant, both of which come with a much longer period of abstinence – a whole year.
‘The most common intolerances generally are dairy, gluten, eggs and yeast, but very often different fruits and vegetables as well,’ Dr Maria says. She explains that what an individual is likely to be intolerant to depends on their dietary habits – apparently we are more likely to develop intolerances to foods that we eat with extreme regularity. ‘Very often we see reactions to food that people tend to overeat, meaning daily and a lot of it.’ Here in the city, she notes that clients often present intolerances to honey and dates, as people tend to eat a lot more of them than in places such as Europe.
So what are the symptoms of an intolerance? Unlike allergies, where reactions to food present themselves immediately and visibly, the effects of intolerance are slower-building and harder to identify. Patchy dry skin and inexplicable fatigue spurred me to get tested, but symptoms vary from person to person. ‘The most common signs are digestive problems – gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea – fatigue, weight gain and skin issues such as acne, rashes and urticaria. Headaches and hormonal imbalances too,’ she says.
As the symptoms take so long to take hold, long periods of avoiding problem foods are necessary to undo the harm that has been done. This time off also resets the body, in a sense and most people will be rid of their intolerances and able to reintroduce theis food into their diet – albeit in a balanced way. ‘In your case, the bloating and fatigue should get better,’ Dr Maria assures me.
In the meantime, it’s out with bread, pasta, cake, biscuits, ice cream, omelettes – even soy sauce, I’m told, often contains gluten. In the few weeks following my diagnosis, I find myself spending longer in supermarkets as I study labels intently, Googling unfamiliar words on my smartphone. As egg is also on my banned list, I’m dismayed to discover that this cuts out a whole range of special gluten-free breads (dried egg whites are on the ingredients lists). The good news, however, is that a number of pizza outlets in Dubai now deliver gluten-free options, including NKD and Russo – a real treat at the end of my first two bread-free weeks. Unexpectedly, carrots are the one that keep catching me out, as I’m not used to having to restrict my vegetable intake – less than ten minutes after walking out of the doctor’s office, I find myself ordering a carrot and orange juice. I get halfway through it before realising my idiocy.
Clearly, it’s an ongoing battle. After just a few weeks though, it already feels worth it, as I notice almost immediately that I am far less prone to bloating after eating. And I know that 11 months down the line, there’s a very large slice of Victoria sponge waiting for me.
Dhs2,500 for testing and consultation. Dubai Herbal & Treatment Centre, Zabeel 1, www.dubaihtc.com (04 335 1200).