Why do people mis-diagnose themselves with food hypersensitivity? An exploration of the role of biopsychosocial factors

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Up to 35% of people self-diagnose food allergy or intolerance (food hypersensitivity [FH]), or diagnose it in their child, and self-manage the condition rather than seek a clinical diagnosis. This is much higher than the latest FH prevalence rate, estimated to affect 2–5% of the general population. The actual prevalence rate may be underestimated due to the lack of diagnostic services; however, this can only account for a small proportion of the discrepancy because only a small percentage of self-reported FH can be clinically confirmed. Many people are therefore misdiagnosing their or their child’s symptoms as FH and needlessly removing foods from their or their child’s diet. There are a number of possible reasons for this misdiagnosis, which can be considered from a biopsychosocial perspective. Psychological factors include a confusion over the diagnosis, coincidental pairing of food and symptom, psychological or psychosomatic reactions, and taste aversions. There are also biological mechanisms that have not been fully considered in food allergy research that may be relevant, such as conditioning of the immune system or stress responses. A social context pertains to a greater awareness of FH due to media coverage and changes in food labelling laws. Any of these theories are plausible, but the research to date has a number of methodological issues. Most studies report on small self-selected samples recruited from clinics and there is a lack of general population data. Studies also tend to be cross-sectional, which does not allow cause and effect to be established. Future research needs to include longitudinal designs that incorporate qualitative elements to enable a detailed exploration of reasons why people self and misdiagnose FH.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-37
JournalEuropean Medical Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 14 Mar 2019

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