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Food Allergy, Food Intolerance, and Food Sensitivity: Knowing the Differences

Food Allergy, Food Intolerance, and Food Sensitivity: Knowing the Differences

January 19, 2024
Food Allergy, Food Intolerance, and Food Sensitivity: Knowing the Differences

Food-related reactions can manifest in various ways, leading to confusion about the terms used to describe them. Understanding the difference between them is crucial for effective management.

What exactly is a food allergy?

A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system wrongly perceives food as a hazard. The body then starts a harmful immune response to combat the proteins in the food and “defend” itself.

Unlike a sensitivity or intolerance reaction, the effects of an allergic reaction are far-reaching. It can impact various organs and systems throughout the affected body, including:

·      Respiratory system

·      GI tract

·      Cardiovascular system

An allergic reaction’s symptoms can range from:

·      moderate, such as a rash or itching

·      severe and life-threatening, such as anaphylaxis.

Food allergies differ from food sensitivities and intolerances in the quantity of irritants required to trigger an individual. Even the smallest amount of the offending food might cause allergic responses.  

(ACAAI) lists the following items as the most usually responsible for food-related allergies: 

·      milk

·      peanuts

·      eggs

·      tree nuts

·      wheat

·      soy

·      fish

·      sesame

·      shellfish

What exactly is a food intolerance?

When dealing with a food intolerance, the effects are limited to the digestive system. It arises from difficulty breaking down a specific type of food, causing symptoms confined to digestion. 

Unlike allergies, intolerances may stem from issues like:

·      sensitivity to additives

·      enzyme deficiencies

·      reactions to natural chemicals

Unlike allergies, those with intolerances can often consume small amounts of trigger foods without severe effects. However, avoiding these foods is still advisable. Common culprits include:

·      dairy

·      gluten

·      caffeine

·      FODMAPs

What exactly is food sensitivity?

Similar to allergies, sensitivities trigger immune responses, but symptoms are typically milder. Digestive issues can arise, and while not life-threatening. Symptoms like joint and fatigue, stomach pain, brain fog, and rashes can disrupt daily life. 

To identify potential triggers, individuals can maintain a food diary, noting symptoms after consuming specific foods. Monitoring and understanding these sensitivities can help manage symptoms and improve overall well-being.

Understanding the differences between them allows you to make more informed diet and health decisions. 

While allergies need more awareness, sensitivities and intolerances allow for more flexible dietary modifications. Seeking professional help enables correct diagnosis and successful management, which promotes general well-being.

How can I know if I have an allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity? 

Various testing methods are available to help identify the source of your symptoms. A board-certified allergist, skilled in analyzing and administering allergy tests, can assist. 

The skin-prick test is widely regarded as the most reliable. Your allergist will apply a small sample of the suspected allergen to your skin, and if allergic, a small area of swelling and redness will appear. 

This test is quick and virtually painless. You can know the results within minutes. Blood tests may also be used to measure antibodies specific to the tested food. 

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