At some point in our lives, we’ve all asked ourselves whether or not we have a Food Allergy. A bit of bloating after that slice of bread leads you to thoughts like “I must have a gluten allergy”. But do you really?
We have three different terms we associate with an inability to eat certain foods:  Food Allergy,  Food Sensitivity, and  Food Intolerance. The distinction between a food sensitivity and a food intolerance is not always clear (or agreed upon), but food allergies may be easier to distinguish.
Food allergies are incredibly dangerous, and can be life-threatening in some cases. It’s important to know what to look out for and when to send yourself, or a loved one, for testing. Food intolerances or sensitivities may not be life-threatening, but they can make you feel pretty bad.
Your Quick Guide to Food Allergies vs Sensitivities vs Intolerances:
1. FOOD ALLERGY
Food allergies occur in 5 – 10% of children, and 1 – 3 % of adults. The most common allergies are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. It only takes a tiny amount of the allergen to trigger a response, which will occur within minutes, and can be life-threatening.
Typical responses include difficulty breathing, swallowing, nausea, vomiting and hives. The allergy response can lead to anaphylaxis. Food allergies need to be diagnosed by a medical doctor or allergy specialist. This usually involves a combination of blood tests and/or skin prick tests, and often an oral food challenge.
The great news is that allergies may be outgrown by kids, with only peanut- and tree nut-allergies tending to persist into adulthood.
2. FOOD INTOLERANCE
Food intolerances may occur in 15 – 20% of the population. The most common food intolerances are to a group of foods known as fermentable carbohydrates. These include milk, legumes, certain vegetables, fruits, grains and sweeteners.
Symptoms of food intolerance vary in severity depending on how much you ingest. Symptoms usually begin within 30 minutes or up to 48 hours after eating. Typical responses include digestive issues including bloating, excessive gas, cramps, diarrhea and constipation.
Food intolerances can be diagnosed by doing breath tests for breakdown products of fermentable carbohydrates. These include lactose and fructose. Symptoms can be minimized or avoided by eliminating problem foods. Antibiotic treatment for bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine may also help.
Intolerances can be diagnosed at any age, but lactose intolerance is more common in adults.
3. FOOD SENSITIVITY
As a newer classi”cation of food “struggles” (for lack of a better word), food sensitivity is less definitive than Food Allergies and Food Intolerances. Food Sensitivities to foods varies from one person to the next.
Common symptoms of a food sensitivity are relatively vague. They include headaches, joint pains, digestive distress, skin issues, and just an overall feeling of being unwell. These symptoms can result within a few hours to a few days after eating the problem food. Food Sensitivities can develop at any age.
Food Sensitivities share one factor in common with Food Allergies: there is immune system involvement. This means that you would be able to pick up elevated IgE levels in blood tests. There are quite a few methods of testing for Food Sensitivities at the moment, but none of them have been de”nitively proven to diagnose Food Sensitivities accurately.
Manage Your Food Issues with Diet
With all three of these food issues, the best way to get rid of your symptoms is by avoiding problem foods. Food Allergies, Intolerances and Sensitivities may resolve over time with a few exceptions.
It is always important to address dietary issues with a holistic approach. This means that you need to establish whether there are underlying health issues that may be a!ecting the immune system or the gut. You should also take both your lifestyle and environment into account when examining for potential causes or triggers of your food issues. It’s rare that health issues develop in isolation, so take stock of everything that’s going on.
- Do your best to identify the foods that you are unable to tolerate (with blood tests, skin prick tests, breath tests, AS WELL AS a diet history via your medical practitioner).
- Eliminate these problem foods immediately.
- Transition to a whole-foods, plant-based diet (which doesn’t necessarily mean vegetarian or vegan). Include organic where possible.
- Address your gut health with high quality probiotics, digestive enzymes, and specialized products such as l-glutamine.
- Eliminate any environmental toxins that you have control over such as tobacco/ cigarettes or harsh chemicals in your cleaning and laundry products.
- Avoid excess alcohol consumption (or even better – avoid alcohol altogether).
Ideally avoid your problem foods for a couple of weeks to months before undergoing a “food trial” (with your medical practitioner if it is a true Food Allergy). Over time you may find that you can reintroduce some foods to your diet.
Whether it be a Food Allergy, Intolerance or Sensitivity, there is no denying the fact that it is a pain. You need to be vigilant with food labels, and you also need to be THAT person at the restaurant asking a million questions about the menu.
This may unfortunately mean that at least for a while you may be unable to eat foods that you haven’t prepared for yourself. However, there is always hope that with the right care and your full involvement, your food issues may resolve.
For more information on food allergies, and for where to get professional help in South Africa, visit The Allergy Society of South Africa website by clicking here.