7 Signs of Food Intolerance in Children

Written by Dr Jane Gilbert
featured image for article on food intolerance in children

A child’s body is growing and developing at a rapid rate and they need a healthy balanced diet to fuel that process. Eating a wide variety of foods is ideal, but sometimes their little bodies just can’t cope properly with certain food items.

Today, we’ll examine the 7 signs of food intolerance in children. We’ll also share practical advice to ensure your child gets proper nutrition (our tummy-friendly Kids’ Live Cultures is a good start). After all, it’s never a good idea to randomly cut out food groups and restrict the nutrition your child so desperately needs!

What is food intolerance in children?

Let’s face it – children can be downright picky eaters. But turning their nose up at food or spitting it out don’t make them intolerant. In fact, they may absolutely love a food and still not be able to tolerate it.

Food intolerance is a medical condition where an individual is sensitive to an ingredient, which makes it difficult to digest the food. 

Is food intolerance the same as food allergy?

No, these are two different conditions. A food allergy is a severe and potentially life-threatening reaction from the body’s immune system to even tiny amounts of a substance. An example would be a peanut allergy.

Food intolerance, on the other hand, can be tricky to identify. A kid needs to have eaten a fair amount of food to have a reaction. But there may be many different symptoms and the response can be delayed by many hours, so it can be difficult to make the connection!

The good news is that although food intolerance in children is unpleasant, they aren’t dangerous or life-threatening. But still, it is important to keep a close eye on all food eaten so that if any symptoms, problems, or behavior changes (as listed below) present, you may be able to spot a pattern.

So, what exactly does keeping a ‘close eye’ entail?

Well, the best way to go about this is by keeping a food diary. Write down everything your child eats and drinks. Think of yourself as a diet detective on a mission to help your child grow healthy and strong!

young boy sitting and eating on high chair

7 signs your child has food intolerance

1. Reflux and regurgitation

Spitting up, or bringing back the milk your baby’s just been fed is totally normal and the reason why no new parent goes anywhere without a muslin square. For some babies, however, the regurgitation can be severe and associated with crying, distress, and sometimes failure to gain weight.

This can be due to acid and milk coming back up from their developing food pipe, which is known as reflux. But up to 40% of babies with severe reflux are found to have an intolerance to the protein in cow’s milk. In fact, cow’s milk may actually make reflux worse (1).

If your baby is suffering, it’s certainly something to consider. They could be getting small amounts of the cow’s milk protein through your breast milk, so it may be worth cutting dairy from your diet to see if that makes a difference. In bottle-fed babies, the formula could be the culprit, so see your doctor for a hypoallergenic alternative.

2. Funny tummy

Does your little one have to sprint to the loo, have runny poos, crampy pains, bloating or constipation? The symptoms that many of us associate with an irritable bowel may actually be down to food intolerances.

A deficiency of the enzyme that breaks down lactose, the sugar in milk, can lead to discomfort and diarrhea after eating dairy products. Your baby could be born with this, or develop it temporarily after a tummy bug. But it’s not just lactose that can irritate the bowels, cow’s milk protein has been linked with chronic constipation in children, so if laxatives are not helping, see your doc for more advice (2).

3. Rashes

Did you know that one of the chemicals that control our body’s allergic reactions can actually be found in the foods we eat?

Histamine is found in pickles, cheese, tofu, soy sauce, processed meats and, unfortunately, chocolate too. Some of us don’t have the ability to break it down properly and can suffer symptoms after eating histamine-containing foods. Symptoms include itching all over, rashes, and hives.

If your little one is sensitive, they may also experience headaches, flushing, chronic tummy pain and diarrhea (3). Keep a food diary and see if histamine intolerance is causing your child’s health problems.

4. Burps and bloating

Is your child a little… erm… windy? If your little one is a farting, burping, or belching machine, they may have an underlying food intolerance. Sensitivity to wheat, dairy or amines can all predispose your child to bloating.

Additionally, problems with absorbing fructose (the sugar in fruit, juices, table sugar and loads of packaged foods) can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and lots of gas. It all has to get out some way!

toddler eating ice cream

5. My head hurts

Headaches and migraines can be miserable for your child and very frustrating for you as parents, since you feel powerless to help. Always see your doctor for support and advice if your little one is suffering regularly. And, as usual, keep a record of any foods that may trigger their attacks.

Foods containing chemicals called ‘amines’ may be the guilty parties for some children. As with histamine, not all of us have the ability to break these substances down and they can act to trigger symptoms. The foods implicated include the usual culprits, chocolate and cheese, but pork, citrus fruits, onions, and caffeine may also kick off a migraine in sensitive children (4).

6. Tired all the time

This is probably the biggest clue of food intolerance in children. They’re quite normally little bundles of pure energy and can play for hours on end! So, if your child gets tired easily and lacks energy all the time, then it’s a little suspicious, isn’t it?

There is some evidence that sensitivity to gluten in wheat, rye, and barley can trigger symptoms of fatigue, foggy mind, and just general grumpiness. Some sensitive individuals may also experience tummyache and diarrhea (5).

This is not the same as Celiac disease in which the gluten actually damages the bowel lining. And it won’t show up on bowel biopsies or tests, so it can be tricky to identify. The food diary is your friend here… chat with your doctor about eliminating gluten from the diet for a trial period, so that you can monitor any changes.

7. Behaviour problems

Does your child struggle to concentrate? Are they disruptive in school or at home? The role of diet in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has attracted lots of debate and controversy.

Many foods have been implicated, from those containing salicylates like grapes, apples and hot dogs, to artificial colourings, sugar and artificial sweeteners. Less informed people have argued that it’s just an excuse for bad behavior.

However, there is evidence that elimination of certain foods may be beneficial in some children (6), and you may prefer trying dietary options to stimulant drugs. But dietary measures can be tricky to impose and difficult for family life, so chat with your GP or pediatrician for advice.

Food Intolerance and Live Cultures for Children

Live cultures, a.k.a. probiotics, are live microorganisms that boost gut and immune system health.

By giving your child a live culture supplement such as our 6 Billion CFU Kid’s Live Cultures and Fibre, your child may reap these health benefits below:

  • Digestive health
  • Lower occurrence of respiratory infections 
  • Weight management
  • Brain development
  • Reduce skin problems
  • Improve insulin sensitivity
  • Reduce food intolerance and even allergies

But don’t just take our word for it! You can read what our customers are saying about our kid-friendly product here. 

And if you’d like to read more about live cultures for kids, check out this article: Live Cultures for Kids: A Complete Evidence-Based Guide for Parents