Food Fight: Allergy vs. Intolerance

  • Allergies
  • Diet

Chances are that you or someone in your family has suffered from a food allergy. There are more than 170 foods that have been reported to cause reactions in the US with eight foods making the biggest impact – milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report that between 1997-1999 and 2009-2011, food allergies among children have increased by 50 percent. Scientists are attributing the increase to changes in modern living such as excessive cleanliness, overuse of antibiotics, indoor living, lack of exercise and our modern diet. It is safe to assume that food intolerances are rising right along with reported allergies.

If you are suffering from a food allergy, you have likely sought advice and treatment from your doctor. Food intolerances, on the other hand, can be a little more difficult to identify. So what is the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance? According to the Mayo Clinic “A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.”

Simply put, a food allergy is an immune response. A food intolerance is a digestive system response. Even small amounts of an allergy-inducing food can cause a reaction while larger amounts of the trigger food may be required before the symptoms of a food intolerance become obvious. While this may seem like good news, it might not be. Even if you are not consuming enough of a food you are intolerant of to send you running to the restroom, you are still taxing your digestive system which can affect elimination of waste and absorption of nutrients.  Food intolerance can be caused from lack of particular enzymes as in the case of lactose intolerance or exacerbated by digestive diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Celiac Disease. Even recurring stress or psychological factors can play a part in your body’s adverse reaction to foods.

So how can you tell if you have a food allergy or intolerance? Your doctor can conduct skin or blood tests to determine if you have an allergy. Testing for a food intolerance is a little less straightforward. The good news is you can conduct the test yourself. A food diary can be extremely helpful in your search for trigger foods. Tracking what you eat and how you are feeling physically and mentally can provide amazing insights into your body’s reactions to specific foods. Elimination diets are another effective tool for self-identifying food intolerances. Elimination diets involve removing suspected foods from your diet for a specific period of time and then reintroducing those foods to see how your body reacts. If you are interested in conducting your own food intolerance test, you can follow the simple elimination diet plan outlined by The University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Food allergies cannot be ignored, particularly when they are life threatening. Food intolerance, while more easily dismissed, can be like a burr in your saddle constantly causing irritation and adversely affecting your quality of life. So if you regularly suffer from tummy trouble, reflux, headaches, hives, itching or flu-like aches and pains, consider looking more closely at what you are eating.