What is the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and a Food Allergy?
Any passionate, self-declared foodie can vouch how comforting, fun, harmonious, and (of course) mouth-wateringly delicious food can be. But it can be quite the opposite for those suffering from food sensitivities; in that case, food can be just about anything else! Consuming foods you’re allergic or sensitive to can bring about a superfluity of symptoms that can be troublesome and even dangerous. While a food intolerance and allergies can both be extremely unpleasant, let’s dive into exactly what the difference is, and how to know what foods can be causing you problems.
- Food intolerances occur in your digestive system, but food allergies involve your immune system.
- To see what foods are causing you problems, you can visit an allergist or try out an elimination diet.
- Some of the most common allergens are also the most common sensitivities. These include peanuts, gluten, dairy products, and shellfish.
What is the difference?
Both food allergies and intolerances can put your body under some serious distress, but what exactly is the difference? A food intolerance is a chemical reaction that occurs in your digestive system that essentially produces complications when digesting certain foods.
This can be a result of enzyme deficiencies, sensitivities to certain additives in food, or just your body’s reaction to naturally occurring chemicals. Symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and gas a few hours after eating. Most of the time, you can eat a small amount of the food you’re intolerant to without causing *too* many problems (but you still won’t feel great!)
On the other hand, food allergies are unpleasant and/or harmful reactions in the immune system that occur after consuming the allergen. Unfortunately, the body sees the allergen as harmful, and it reacts by causing uncomfortable symptoms. Typically, allergic reactions are seen and felt on the skin, and can occur in the form of hives, itchiness, and swelling. Additionally, reactions can include gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea.
In serious cases, respiratory symptoms can occur, but they don’t usually happen alone. Anaphylaxis is the most serious allergic reaction; it happens almost right after the food is consumed, and it leads to difficulty breathing, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. Without immediate treatment (with an EpiPen), it can be fatal.
The key point: food allergies involve the immune system, and food intolerances do not! While an intolerance will surely leave you feeling pretty miserable, food allergies can be potentially life threatening.
Because some of the symptoms overlap, it can be difficult to know if you’re actually allergic or just sensitive to whatever you’re eating. The easiest way to find out is to see an allergist and get tested!
How to get tested
It’s time to schedule a date with your allergist if you:
- Have a reason to think you may have a food allergy, or
- If you have already restricted your diet as a result of a possible food allergy.
Seeing an allergist can diagnose the problem, as well as provide treatment and proper avoidance measures. There are typically three different types of allergy tests your allergist can conduct: skin tests, intradermal tests, and patch testing.
Skin testing is typically conducted first; this is when the allergen is placed in a liquid, and the doctor uses a special tool coated in the liquid to lightly puncture the skin’s surface. The skin is then monitored for several minutes to see how it reacts. This is similar to patch testing, in which allergens are placed on the adhesive patches and stuck onto your skin. The patches are then reviewed after about 48 hours and then again after 72 to 96 hours.
If the skin testing results are inconclusive, the allergist can conduct additional intradermal testing. Here, they inject a small amount of the allergen under the skin and wait for a potential reaction. Blood tests can also be used to test for the presence of antibodies that fight allergies (and subsequently cause the reactions.) These blood tests are called ImmunoCAP tests.
Food intolerances are quite difficult to test for, despite it being estimated that almost 20% of adults suffer from them. The most efficient way to test for a food intolerance is by using an elimination diet.
Elimination diets are a way for you to take matters into your own hands; they are essentially perfectly crafted diets (designed by you!) that exclude foods or food groups that are thought to be problem-inducing (like an allergy or sensitivity.)These diets should last for 4-6 weeks, and you should only reintroduce foods 5-7 days after having no symptoms at all, and reintroducing them at different times (if you eliminate several foods) to pinpoint exactly what food is causing each problem.
Common food sensitivities
It can be daunting to start an elimination diet if you have no idea what the source of your discomfort is. I’ve compiled a list of the most common food allergies, as well as the foods that most people are intolerant of. Keep an eye out for these troublesome foods; about 40% of children diagnosed with a food allergy end up being allergic to more than one! Additionally, the most common allergens overlap significantly with the most common food intolerances.
The most common food sensitivities include:
- Milk and dairy products
- Peanuts and tree nuts
- Wheat and gluten
While there is no treatment for food intolerances and allergies, the best way to combat the discomfort is by taking antihistamines or eliminating the source from your diet completely and permanently. Taking dietary supplements can also help, as well as taking over-the-counter antacids and antidiarrheals to relieve symptoms. Food sensitivities tend to be lifelong, and although they can’t be treated, they can be managed.
Food has a way of bringing people together. Additionally, it is the fuel we need to survive and keep our bodies happy and healthy (not to mention it is delicious!) Our food is meant to be enjoyed, and when it's causing problems, it is doing quite the opposite! If you suffer from any of the symptoms of a food allergy or sensitivity, it may be time to consult with your doctor.
Exposing those unknown food sensitivities will surely expose a happier and healthier version of you!
Written by Morgan Taylor