Smart Food Substitutions For Common Food Intolerances

Smart Food Substitutions For Common Food Intolerances

Figuring out you have a food intolerance can be a major bummer!

Learning that some of your favorite foods are only going to make you feel physically ill, give you headaches, or make you start swelling up like a balloon can seem like more than you can handle. Don’t worry!

Although food intolerances may seem like a cruel punishment, identifying them can actually be viewed as a great opportunity! Avoiding foods that your body rejects will allow you to reduce inflammation, improve digestion, and help you feel physically great.

This article will provide background information on food intolerances and give you useful ingredient substitutions to make food preparation easier.

Food Allergy Vs. Intolerance

A food intolerance occurs when you have an adverse reaction to a food, such as GI problems, headaches, hives, itching, or bloating. A food allergy has similar symptoms, but the pathway in the body is different. A food allergy is triggered by an immune response, which means you can use a blood test to check for anti-bodies, whereas a food intolerance is not immune-mediated and is harder to test for.

Another difference is that food allergies typically develop soon after the offending food is eaten, while the symptoms of a food intolerance are often delayed, showing up anywhere from 6 to 72 hours after consumption.

What Causes Them?

Some food allergies are caused by genetics. For example, some people don’t have sufficient copies of the amylase gene to be able to digest gluten and wheat safely. They experience gut problems and inflammation if they eat these foods. Others don’t have sufficient copies of the LCT gene that allows them to produce the lactase enzyme so that they can digest lactose in milk products.

The source of food intolerances are less clear, but they probably have to do with problems in the GI tract. In a healthy gut, each cell in the cell layer is held together by what is called a “tight junction.” All kinds of things can break down the tight junction so that compounds break through and are released into your blood stream. This is what is meant by the term “leaky gut” and it is associated with an adverse response.

For example, a protein called zonulin allows absorption of food nutrients into the body through regulation of the tight junctions. However, if you are intolerant to gluten, eating it will lead the body to release excessive amounts of zonulin, breaking down the tight junctions and allowing dangerous compounds to pass into the blood stream, which can cause an immune response.

Other factors that can negatively affect the tight junctions include high cortisol due to excess stress, inflammatory bacteria in the gut, and medication use.

How To Tell If You Have A Food Intolerance

One of the most troubling things about food intolerances is that it’s often hard to identify them because the symptoms are so varied and similar to other physical conditions, especially hormonal imbalances. The most obvious symptoms are evident in the skin (hives, rashes, itchiness, swelling), the gut (reflux, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, flatulence), breathing (shortness of breath or tight chest), or just generally feeling unwell.

These symptoms can manifest immediately after eating the offending food or may not appear for as much as 72 hours.

The best method of identifying foods that cause adverse reactions is to try a food challenge. If you think you might have an intolerance to a certain food group, remove that food from your diet for two weeks and track how you feel. Then add it back to see if you have symptoms. Most people find they feel markedly better once they eliminate an offending food.

Foods To Watch Out For

Eight food groups are responsible for the majority of food intolerances and allergies: eggs, milk and dairy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soy. In the U.S., The FDA requires food manufacturers to list these common allergens on food labels.

Take note that many of these foods can sneak into unexpected foods. One way to avoid this problem is to favor whole foods in their most natural form and steer clear of processed and packaged foods, which commonly contain wheat, soy, or egg. Becoming a diligent label reader is also key because even if you avoid most processed foods, many sauces will have additives that can set off a food intolerance.

You should also know that you can develop food intolerances to anything (for example, even strawberries or coffee!) and people with GI problems are more at risk for random intolerances because the tight junction in the gut will have been compromised for a while.

Simple Substitutions For The Big Eight

The following substitutions offer similar flavors and textures to the eight most common food intolerances.


Cow’s milk is an excellent protein source that is a key ingredient in several food products, including butter and cheese. Unfortunately, it is one of the more common intolerances. On the upside, whey protein that is lactose free is often tolerated in people with milk intolerance.


For Milk:

  • Rice milk
  • Almond milk
  • Cashew milk
  • Hemp milk
  • Coconut milk

Many of these products have added sugar so read labels and look for the “unsweetened” version.

For Butter:

Mashed sweet potato or avocado

For Cheese, Etc.:

  • You can find recipes for everything from zucchini cheese to cauliflower-based cheese on the internet.
  • There’s also an abundance of dairy free cheeses on the market—try Daiya for a variety of non-dairy cheeses. They also have yogurt and cream cheese, but just a heads up that both are sweetened with either sugar or agave.

Another great protein source, eggs are often used in baking to serve as a binder (to hold a recipe together), leavening agent (help food rise), or both. Oftentimes egg intolerances develop due to incomplete chewing. Undigested pieces of egg reach the intestine tract and cause problems for the GI tract. Therefore, always remember to chew your food!


For Binding:

  • ½ a smashed banana
  • 1 tablespoon of ground flax or chia seed mixed with 3 tablespoons of warm water; let stand for 1 minute before using
  • ¼ cup of applesauce or pureed fruit
  • 3½ tablespoons of gelatin

For Leavening:

1½ tablespoons coconut oil mixed with 1½ tablespoons water and 1 teaspoon baking powder

For Both:

You can also buy an egg replacer such as Ener G, which is made from potato starch.


If a food is gluten-free, it will automatically be wheat-free, which makes it relatively easy to find packaged food alternatives. Still, be sure to read labels since wheat pops up in many surprising places.

Flour Substitutes:

  • Almond flour
  • Rice flour
  • Tapioca or Potato starch
  • Bean/Legume Flours (Lentil, Chick Pea)

Non-Wheat Grains:

  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Rice
  • Millet

Besides missing out on a great protein option, fish is a rich source of the essential omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Because fish oil is purified and refined, it shouldn’t contain any protein, which is what causes a fish allergy. Therefore, it should be safe, but due to variations in supplement quality, you’ll want to check with your doctor if you have a severe fish allergy.

Protein Substitutes:

Organic, grass-fed meat and poultry provide high quality protein and some omega-3s.

Omega-3 Substitutes:

Flax seed provides the omega-3 ALA, which is converted into EPA and DHA, however, the conversion rate is very low.


The thing about soy is that it’s often used in food substitutes for people with other intolerances. It’s also present in the VAST majority of processed foods, popping up as soy oil, soy protein, or hydrolyzed vegetable protein. It also may not be identified directly, masquerading as vegetable oil.

Soy Bean Substitutes:

Lentils, split peas, and other beans. Pair them with quinoa or other gluten-free grains for a complete protein.

Soy Oil Substitute:

Olive or sesame oil.


Assuming you’re not also intolerant to nuts, there are many delicious and nutritious alternatives to peanuts. Eat them whole or ground into a nut butter:

  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • Tahini (ground sesame seeds)
Tree Nuts

Seeds are a great substitute for nut allergies. Try sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, chia seeds, cumin seeds, and even watermelon seeds. Make hummus out of chick peas, lemon, and tahini for a great substitute for nut butter. 



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