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Food Intolerance and Malabsorption in the Elderly

Food Intolerance and Malabsorption in the ElderlyAs a person gets older, many of the bowel functions that were efficient earlier in life may become impaired to different degrees. Sometimes this is just an age-related change in the bowel while at other times it is associated with genetic factors or bowel disease. One of these changes is the intolerance to certain foods. This means that the body cannot digest or absorb certain nutrients. It must not be confused with food allergies where exposure to a certain food triggers overactivity of the immune system, which can at times even be life threatening. A food intolerance means that your body cannot process certain types of foods because of the substances within it.

Types of Food Intolerance

Food intolerance is a broad term that can be used to describe two problems. The first is maldigestion where the enzymes that are needed to chemically break down certain foods are absent, defective or in too low quantities to be suitably effective. The word maldigestion is not often used and rather a problem with digestion is simply referred to as intolerance. The other problem is malabsorption where the food may be digested but the some defect hampers its absorption. Although the term malabsorption is used with regards to certain foods and substances, it still falls under the broad category of intolerance.

Some of the common types of food intolerances with the foods that the problem substances are found in includes :

  • Lactose intolerance (mainly milk and other dairy products).
  • Gluten intolerance (wheat and other types of grains).
  • Sucrose intolerance (sugar, sugar cane and beets).
  • Sorbitol malabsorption (sweeteners, some cough syrups and mouth washes).
  • Fructose malabsorption (most fruits and some sweet vegetables).
  • Fat intolerance (oil, lard and fatty meats)

There are certain diseases of the bowels that prevents the food from being digested and absorbed properly despite there being sufficient enzymes. Often in these cases, there is an intolerance to many foods.

Symptoms of Food Intolerances

A food intolerance or malabsorption is not specific to the elderly and can occur in younger people. Similarly, not every senior person will definitely experience food intolerances. Symptoms may vary and sometimes there may be no symptoms. Traces of the undigested or unabsorbed problem food may be found in the stool and the presence of these foods can cause certain types of microbes to overgrow in the bowels.

The following symptoms are more likely to be seen in a food intolerance :

  • Diarrhea, and sometimes constipation.
  • Abdominal pains and cramping.
  • Nausea after eating a meal laden with the problem substance.
  • Excessive belching.
  • Abdominal bloating (sensation of fullness) and sometimes distention (enlargement).

Treatment of Food Intolerances

Although certain types of digestive enzymes can be supplemented with tablets and capsules. Treatment is usually directed at controlling the symptoms and even complications that can arise with intolerances. The best approach is to avoid the problem food altogether. A food journal may help to identify the causative food and other possible triggers. Dietary changes do not always have to be to the point where these foods are stopped altogether. Sometimes the body can handle small quantities of the food every now and then. A nutritionist or dietitian can help develop an appropriate eating plan for a person with a food intolerance.


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