Introduction to Food Intolerances and training as a Food Intolerant Athlete

Me, food intolerant triathlete.

Me, food intolerant triathlete in Women’s Health and Fitness 2012

This article formed the basis for an interview for Women’s Health and Fitness in 2012…

“You can’ t eat FRUIT?!”

Add an uncomfortable pause and a look of incredulousness, wherein I rapidly feel as if I am in the middle of an AA meeting;

“Hi. My Name’s Naomi, and I’m… a Food Intolerant Athlete.”

Once this is confessed I am usually pressured to reel off the tedious list of “forbidden fruit” and other foodstuff that we can’t eat in our house.  The list is something like this: no wheat and gluten, no dairy, no egg, no soy, no fruit, no nuts, no meat, absolutely no added preservatives, colours or flavours and our diet only permits a rather small selection of vegetables. And before you say it, no, we don’t eat cardboard…

Our multiple food chemical intolerances were diagnosed 2.5 years ago, courtesy of my youngest daughter’s severe food reactions. Since intolerances run in families, her reactions to food prompted the rest of us to check ourselves and surprisingly, we found out we had been living with undiagnosed intolerances all our lives!

Food Chemicals

Most of us are now aware of food intolerances to things like lactose and gluten, but less people (and perhaps, dare I say, even fewer health care professionals!) are aware of sensitivities to common and naturally occurring food chemicals like salicylates, amines and glutamates. These chemicals are a natural property of food and occur across all food groups; salicylates for example, can occur in high concentrations in fruit, amines in fermented or aged protein products and glutamates are the yummy taste of the natural world, see it as nature’s own ‘MSG’!

Sue Dengate of the Food Intolerance Network says

People who choose to eat ‘healthy’ foods can be at risk of salicylate intolerances because salicylates occur naturally in varying amounts in most fruits and some vegetables.”

Over a period of time, salicylates and other food chemicals build up in the body, and once they reach the threshold level, the sensitive individual can become symptomatic. Fruit is seen as the epitome of a healthy diet, yet as Sue highlights;

“Consuming heaps of fruit and fruit juice can lead a high salicylate diet,” and in the food sensitive, chronic symptoms.

Organic produce doesn’t help someone with a food intolerance either, in fact, it may make symptoms worse,

“Growing fruits and vegetables without pesticides and herbicides makes them susbstantially increase their own production of natural salicylates and other protective chemicals” (RPAH Elimination Handbook).

My interview with Women's Health and Fitness 2012

My interview with Women’s Health and Fitness 2012

‘Natural’ Food, Unnatural Symptoms

Whereas allergies are related to an immune reaction to the proteins in food, according to the RRAH Allergy Unit, intolerances are thought to be related to an irritation of nerve endings and can be caused by any other food chemical.

Up until two years ago, like many undiagnosed food intolerant individuals, I had grown very much used to living with my range of non-specific symptoms. Unlike allergies which can be relatively simple to diagnose, intolerances present in myriad of ways and symptoms are specific to each individual. This makes them difficult recognise and definitive diagnosis usually only occurs through an Elimination Diet with food challenges.

For me, poor concentration, poor immunity, odd tummy aches,  and low energy levels were a few of the symptoms that I just thought were normal aspects of being… well, of being me.

A year on, after completing an Elimination Diet, dismally failing food challenges and living very well on a small selection of foods, ‘being me’ is a different ballgame!

Who gets Intolerances?

 “Some people are born with a sensitive constitution and react more readily to food chemicals than others…but environmental triggers – a sudden change of diet…a nasty viral infection… – can bring on symptoms at any age by altering the way a body reacts to food chemicals.” (RPAH Friendly Food:9)

It is thought that women may be more sensitive during their childbearing years, an intervention from nature, which may prevent women from eating things that may harm a growing baby (RPAHFriendly Food:9).

It is speculated that we have become more prone to developing food intolerances due to our heavily processed diets and from exposure to chemicals in the environment. In her book ‘Fed Up’, Sue Dengate has alluded to the fact that we may even fare better on simple diets without the almost endless variation that we have associated with a ‘healthy’ diet these days.

A Lifelong Journey

Under the supervision of a dietician, I embarked on my Food Intolerance Journey  2 .5 years ago. I had no idea it would become my ticket to a transformation in wellbeing, energy and better health! I should point out that we are at the extreme end of the spectrum with a heavily restricted diet. A dietician’s fine toothed comb has decreed that it contains all the necessary nutrients that my children need to grow and that I need to train hard and compete well, as an athlete. I am a triathlete, and race triathlon (swim, bike and run). I have just been selected to compete on the (amateur) Australian Team for the Triathlon World Championships, London 2013.

Processed, purpose made food for Training and Recovery is of course, completely off limits (sky high in everything ‘wrong’ for me; flavour, colour, preservatives and so on). However I train, race and recover excellently on ‘normal,’ whole foods.I get all my protein from pulses (beans!) and the odd handful of cashews. Limited and restricted yes, but the “proof of the pudding” is in our training and racing results; I continue to improve my PBs and I am able train harder than I ever have before.

Time, Training and Other Challenges

There are challenges beyond putting in the hours on the track and in the kitchen.

It can be frustrating dealing with the perceptions of others who can’t seem to fathom how they can socialize with us having such severe food restrictions! We however, are quite content to bring our own food to events and always try to steer social meetings to something non-food based.

Time is an issue. But these days, it is for everyone isn’t it? A priority list tops family (fun and food commitments), then training, and lastly work. Training is at 5.30 a.m and so to get enough sleep to train well, I have to be in bed by 8.30 p.m (and, I am unashamed to confess, it is often earlier than that!) there is no time for television or late evening chit-chats. My husband and I date by training together occasionally at the weekend and we also race together as team “Pass the Babies” occasionally throughout racing season.

Our lives are disciplined but also full, rewarding and busy. Because of what we eat, it’s OK that it’s busy… because for the first time in our lives, we actually have the energy for it!


Friendly Food: food for life by Murdoch Books, Dr Swain, Dr Soutter, Dr Loblay from Royal Prince Alfred Allergy Unit 2010

Fed Up by Sue Dengate

RRAH Elimination Diet Handbook by Dr Swain, Dr Soutter, Dr Loblay from Royal Prince Alfred Allergy Unit 2011

For more information check out:

Sue Dengates’ enormous collection of up to date information on Food Intolerance

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit

  8 comments for “Introduction to Food Intolerances and training as a Food Intolerant Athlete

  1. June 12, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Thanks Naomi for this great article! So interesting! I now wonder if I have one of those chronic symptoms?!

  2. Naomi R Cook
    June 12, 2013 at 8:01 am

    I know Marion, because its a dose related response, there’s a high chance most people are affected in varying levels when they eat certain quantities of certain foods.

  3. June 14, 2013 at 5:57 am

    Great article Naomi! A great example of how food can affect our bodies and health.

    • Naomi R Cook
      June 14, 2013 at 8:22 am

      Thanks Sandra! And thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

  4. March 23, 2017 at 4:48 am

    Thanks Naomi – I’ve been on the RPAH diet for 5 months now, and as a beginner triathlete myself have found that since starting this diet (and addressing my symptoms) even getting out of bed for early morning sessions is so much easier!! The hardest part I find is race nutrition – what do you do to replace gels?

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