How To Differentiate a Food Allergy from Food Intolerance and Food Sensitivity

Often food allergy, food intolerance and food sensitivity are confused. Even doctors tend to interchange these terms as they have food in common and treatment for each can be similar. They are very different and it is important to know which one you actually have.

  1. A food allergy is an anaphylactic immune response. It is usually severe, requires immediate medical attention, and is life-threatening. Early symptoms of an allergy include rash, swelling of the tongue, throat and face. Some of the most common food allergies are to peanut, shellfish, clams, egg, corn, wheat and milk.

  1. A food intolerance has several causes, depending on the intolerance. Milk or lactose intolerance is caused by the lack of an enzyme called lactase. Gluten intolerance (gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and oats) is caused by an antibody present in the intestines that attacks the gluten. Both can cause abdominal discomfort, bloating and diarrhea though with intolerances, symptoms can vary. Some people show no significant symptoms but in the case of a gluten intolerance, it is important to be diagnosed early to avoid severe damage to the intestines. It is hereditary and advisable to get tested if an immediate family member is diagnosed.

  1. A food sensitivity has been linked to many health problems including ADHD, hyperactivity, autism and many others. While how exactly these health problems are linked to foods is not known for certain, studies using the elimination method (eliminating certain foods from the diet) show improvement of symptoms. Some common foods to look into would be caffeine, chocolate, artificial colors or flavors, soy, casein (protein in milk), corn, and/or gluten, just to name a few.

If you suspect that you have a food allergy, food intolerance, or food sensitivity, it is advisable to see your doctor. There are many tests that can help you narrow down which of these food-related ailments you might have and the foods causing your symptoms.

One thing you can try on your own is an elimination diet. Try taking the offending food or foods out of your diet for a week. Try reintroducing the foods back one at a time, about one new food every five to seven days, and see what happens. It is also helpful to keep a food journal. Write down what you eat and how you feel as you eliminate and reintroduce foods.

For most food-related ailments, the treatment is to avoid the food entirely. Lactose intolerance is an exception and can be treated by taking an enzyme that aids in digestion. If you find that you have a food ailment, it is important to seek support. To completely avoid a food, you have to learn a lot about it in order to understand the benefits of eliminating it. Also, you can start feeling very isolated because you're afraid to get sick. You are not alone, and as time goes by, coping gets easier.


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Thank you for the helpful tips. I have been dealing with my daughter's allergies, and it always makes me confused as to whether the symptoms are allergy or some food intolerance.

By novi widayanti