Living with Intolerance

Having a food intolerance means you may have to avoid certain foods and that you are eating a restricted diet.  The thought of having to cut some of the major food groups out of your diet can be daunting for most people, and the more foods you are avoiding, the more difficult it is.

If you are cutting foods out of your diet you should replace those foods with substitutes to ensure that you are getting adequate nutrition.  If you do not then you are likely to become deficient in these nutrients, which can lead to poor health.

One of the best ways to cope when dealing with food intolerance is to cook meals from scratch rather than relying on convenience foods so that you can be sure of all the ingredients present.  There are now many recipe books and online recipe resources available to help you with this.  These can give ideas on how to adapt your diet and replace everyday meals to make them safe for you to eat.  See our useful books section.

However, it isn’t always easy or convenient to cook from scratch so what are the alternatives?  Increasingly supermarkets now stock ‘Free From’ ranges so you can find a wide range of replacement foods to help make your diet more interesting.  In addition, depending on what you are excluding look on the regular shelves first, you will be surprised at how many foods naturally exclude the ingredient that you are trying to avoid anyway and at a much less cost than the ‘free from’ alternative.  Look at different supermarkets products in-store or on the internet and a food that contains an ingredient you are trying to avoid in one shop, may be ok in another shop.

Shopping on a restricted diet

When you are first diagnosed with a food intolerance it can be a very confusing time.  What do you need to avoid?  Where do you go to get the right types of foods you need?  Can you still join in at dinner parties without seeming to make a fuss over what you can or can’t eat?  Once you have a better understanding of where to shop and how to cook within the restrictions you will find that coping with your intolerance will become much easier.


Supermarkets carry thousands of different foods so you just need to do some detective work to find the ones that are suitable for you.  Aim to research all your local supermarkets for their specialist range of foods.  It is always worth venturing further away to a larger store or doing online shopping to increase the range of choice.  When suitable foods are found, buy them in bulk to make your trip efficient and to stock up your store cupboard, in the last few years the variety of ‘free from’ foods available has increased dramatically and with that prices have come down making these products more affordable.  Soya ice creams, spreads and yoghurts, oat milk and oat cream, nut milks, gluten free pasta, breads and biscuits, dairy free cheeses, cooking sauces and condiments such as egg free mayonnaise and nut free pesto are just a few examples.  Many supermarkets now carry a list of products that are ‘free from’.  This regularly updated booklet contains lists of brand name foods that are suitable for your particular diet.  Listings usually include; milk free, egg free, wheat free, gluten free, soya free, nut and peanut free, preservative free, vegan, vegetarian, etc. and are available by contacting the customer services department at the head office  of the store.

Nowadays it is much easier to find specialist foods as they usually have a dedicated area within the store, sometimes they will be located alongside similar foods, for example wheat free breads will be in the normal bread section, alternatively they can sometimes be found in the ‘free from’ section or in the ‘organic’ section.

Legislation on the most common allergens, ingredients, and allergy advice on food labelling, has made it much easier to identify if pre-packaged manufactured foods contain any of the 14 foods listed in the EU.  These foods are:

  • Milk
  • Egg
  • Soya
  • Wheat & gluten containing grains
  • Sesame
  • Lupin
  • Fish
  • Molluscs
  • Crustaceans
  • Sulphur dioxide/sulphites
  • Peanuts & tree nuts
  • Celery
  • Mustard

Identifying foods not on this list of 14 is more tricky and for those which are sold loose without a label such as bakery and deli items there is no way of knowing which ingredients foods contain.  This will change in 2014 when new food labelling of ingredients listings for these foods sold loose comes into effect (FSA website).

You no longer need to know all the alternative names for derivatives of the food that is being excluded, as by law these need to labelled clearly on pre-packaged foods.  For example, a label can no longer say ‘sodium caseinate’ without saying (from milk).  This clear labelling will help prevent eating an ingredient by mistake due to misunderstanding the ingredient label.  All labels should be checked every time a new product is bought as ingredients in products often change.  Sometimes a phrase such as ‘new’ or ‘improved recipe’ can alert us but this is not always the case, so checking every time is essential.  Although this can seem time consuming, it is worth the time potentially prevent inadvertent exposure to the food you are trying to avoid which will make you unwell.

Health food stores

Health food shops are another useful outlet where ‘free from foods’ can be purchased.  There is usually more variety than in the supermarkets but they can also be more expensive.  These shops will often buy in foods especially for a consumer and are definitely a useful resource for anyone on a restricted diet.  The independent health food shops are usually more likely to honour special requests that chain shops that are more rigid in what they sell.

Online shopping

There are now many websites where you can purchase foods suitable for restricted diets.  As well as online supermarkets which have a free from section, there are also specialist online shopping sites dedicated to providing thousands of free from products.  These include everyday foods such as wheat free bread, pastas and dairy free milks and ice creams to individual sites providing specialist bespoke birthday cakes and wedding favours.  The choice is out there but often comes at a price – one worth spending.  If you are unable to eat out or if you want to treat yourself or be treated by others, put items on your birthday and Christmas wish list.  Many products have long shelf lives.

Online recipe resources

There are many excellent sites on the internet where you can find recipes that cater for all types of restricted diets; some include a forum where comments can be posted about the recipes, which can be helpful.  Vegan recipes will by definition always be free from milk and egg so consider all options.  Probably the most difficult combination of exclusions to cater for are recipes free from both wheat and egg.  Finding recipes and using recipe tips from sites such as these can be invaluable.

Eating out

With more and more people affected by food allergy or food intolerance, restaurants are now becoming more used to catering for special diets.  However never underestimate how important it is to ask the right questions when you make your restaurant booking, try to visit the restaurant to have a look at the menu before you eat there for the first time.  Keeping the menu simple is key.  Explaining the level of exclusion required is also essential to help the chef understand how careful or less cautious he has to be depending on your requirements.

Always ask when booking if special diets can be catered for, explaining exactly what it is that must be avoided.  For example, if you are milk intolerant asking for a dairy free meal may cause confusion, explain that you must avoid all milk, cream, butter, yogurt and foods containing milk such as biscuits and cakes to be certain that you do not have a reaction.  This not only avoids disappointment at not being able to find a dish that you can enjoy, but saves the embarrassment at having to leave the restaurant without eating.

It is worth asking if you can speak to the chef rather than just a waiter and build up a good relationship with them.  Many people find that they have a favourite restaurant that they return to time and time again because they know that the chef can prepare a meal for them without too much hassle.

Eating away from home

Days out, visiting friends, travelling, holidays –these will all involve eating and drinking.  These situations all require careful management.  The amount of planning required will vary according to how strict the exclusion of certain ingredients has to be.  You may find you are able to use food outlets, buy foods en route that are pre-packaged or if your restrictions are numerous it is easier to take foods you like with you.  After all, being hungry can ruin a great day out, and food or lack of it can ruin an experience.  So plan ahead and take all your favourite treats.

This factsheet hopefully shows that with the right amount of planning, organising and with practice, food on a restricted diet can still be enjoyed.


Last updated: October 2012


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