03/15/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Food Intolerances vs. Allergies: The Pizza Crisis

"When in Rome..." It sounds so romantic, doesn't it? When you're in Rome, or anywhere on vacation really, you can feel the freedom -- how you breathe a sigh of relief, let your guard down, and go with the flow. But it's not so charming when you're about to indulge in a pizza in Rome and have a severe wheat intolerance.

We'd just spent two gorgeous weeks in Europe. Our last stop was Rome. With gratitude and compassion, I'd dragged my sweet man to every organic and veggie-friendly restaurant I could find. So when we finally got to Rome, it would have been cruel of me to deny him a real pizza. We got a recommendation for a locals-only pizza place. After all, if you're going to do it, you should do it right. With a big smile on his face, he ordered a pizza, and I got a salad and an aranchini with mushrooms. But against my better "nutritional musing" judgment, I decided to try the pizza -- just one (or maybe two) teeny bites. It was beyond delicious.

The next morning I woke with a headache, flu-like symptoms, and eyes so pouffy they could barely open. My husband looked at me and asked why I seemed so pale and clammy. This is food intolerance in action.

When intolerant to a food, you can eat small amounts with no immediate signs or symptoms. Like exercise, an intolerance is cumulative, meaning over time your signs and symptoms will get stronger. If you eat too much of that food, you will react. But as all bodies are different, so are the reactions. My reactions to wheat and yeast are not immediate, but if I eat more than a bite I'm destined for a food hangover and possibly worse.

A food allergy, on the other hand, is immediate. It's an immune system response that can affect several organs in the body. My husband is allergic to lobster. If he eats even the tiniest bit, he will instantly swell and his skin will itch.

Have you noticed that food intolerances and allergies seem to be on the rise these days? That's because over the years our food supply has been increasingly altered with preservatives, additives, and genetic modifications. The more of these non-natural things we eat, the weaker our digestive systems become, which opens the door for food intolerances and allergies.

So what do you do when you have a food intolerance or allergy and feel left out as everyone around you is partaking in the forbidden cuisine? That takes a bit of soul searching and good dose of knowledge. If you have an allergy, stay away. If you have an intolerance, stay away... or maybe have just one bite. Be happy with that bite -- savor it -- and then move on, knowing that there are many more of life's delicacies waiting for you to enjoy.

Tips for eating in Italy when you have a food intolerance or allergy:

Italy can seem difficult to navigate for a non-wheat-eater, non-dairy-eater, or even a vegetarian, unless you know what to look for.

For those who can't eat gluten:

• These days many restaurants offer gluten-free pasta. You just have to ask for it.
• Faro (spelt) pasta is readily available in Italy (it is wheat-free but not gluten-free).
• Rissotto is rice but it is typically made with cheese.
• Orzo coffee is made of barley (it's not gluten-free but it is caffeine-free).
• Polenta is cornmeal.
• Potatoes are readily available.
• Gnocci are potato but normally have flour added.

As far as cheese goes:
• Mozzerella de Buffalo is made from buffalo milk, not cow.
• Peccorino is made from sheep milk.
• Capra is made from goat milk.
• Anything with Vacca is made from cow milk.

For vegetarians, there are always veggies on the menu. Look for "cantanori." Vegetables are normally roasted or sautéed. You can ask for several veggie sides and make a meal out of that (or add some grilled fish, if you eat that).


For more on diet and nutrition, click here.