Dietitians have warned against people cutting out vital food groups after “self-diagnosing” serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gluten intolerance without medical intervention.
A survey of 2,000 people carried out by YouGov and the British Dietetic Association (BDA) found that 49.5 per cent of participants said they or a family member believe they have a dietary condition, despite not having been tested by a healthcare professional.
More than half of those surveyed said they used the internet for dietary and nutritional advice rather than trained experts.
Those who cut important food groups from their diet without seeking a medical opinion are potentially putting their long-term health at risk, the BDA said.
Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior lecturer at Aston Medical School said: “Seeking advice purely online can be risky. Search engines may offer you a range of supplements and products that you probably won’t need.
“They may also offer up links to advice that is not scientifically correct. It is best to look at verified health websites for accurate and evidence informed health information.
“It can be tempting to seek out the first website when you are struggling with a health condition and symptoms you feel are linked to something you have eaten.
“But, it is always wise to seek qualified health professionals to first diagnose it, and then a dietitian to get the scientifically accurate dietary advice, which will be tailored to your needs and likes.”
The survey revealed the most common self-diagnosed condition is IBS, with 20.2 per cent saying they or a family member suffer from it.
This was followed by a vitamin or mineral deficiency (15.9 per cent), a food allergy – such as shellfish or eggs (9.9 per cent) – and intolerance to lactose (9.6 per cent).
Research suggests that only about 15 per cent of the population have a food intolerance, the Times reports.
IBS can only be properly diagnosed by a healthcare professional when other conditions, such as bowel cancer or coeliac disease have been excluded, the BDA said.
Kirsten Jackson, a consultant IBS dietitian, said: “Digestive problems are a huge taboo subject. People commonly go years without going to their doctors – if at all. IBS is also often not seen as a serious condition, so people don’t feel they should see the doctor, but the reality is that it can completely ruin a person’s life.”
“Many people with IBS will have or be at a high risk of developing an eating disorder, so they need professional help to navigate symptom relief without worsening their own health problems.”
Parents in particular should seek professional advice before changing their child’s diet, BDA warned, to ensure they are not deprived of calories and nutrients that are vital for their development.
Bahee Van de Bor, a specialist paediatric dietitian and BDA spokesperson said: “The most common thing I get told is, ‘I think my child is gluten intolerant’ because he/she has a sore tummy after eating regular bread or pasta.
“Whilst parents might not be too far off from the culprit, it’s really important that they don’t cut out gluten before consulting with a healthcare professional.
“Cutting out gluten or wheat without medical guidance won’t guarantee desired results and it can unfortunately lead to anxiety and disruption around eating for both you and your child.
“Without suitable substitutes, you can potentially deprive your child of essential calories and nutrients like fibre, calcium, iodine, and B vitamins, which are crucial for their normal growth and development too.”
Experts warned against people using expensive at-home testing kits, which they say offer unreliable diagnoses.
Ms Jackson added: “There are many alternative tests available online, which can cost up to around £600, such as IGG (Immunoglobulin) tests. Many people trying to self-manage their symptoms will waste money on these tests and end up on a restricted diet, which may go on to cause nutritional deficiencies.”