Food Sensitivities: The Difference Between ‘Allergy’ and ‘Intolerance’

bowl of almonds next to a glass of milk

Did you know that roughly 15-20% of the population suffers from at least one food intolerance? Or that 10% of adults in the United States suffer from food allergies? As these percentages continue to tick up year after year, it’s becoming increasingly important to understand these sensitivities, their triggers, the signs and symptoms of an adverse reaction, and what to do if you or a loved one ends up eating a problem food.

At the most basic level, food sensitivities boil down to this: food intolerances affect the digestive system and are generally non-life threatening, while food allergies affect the immune system and can be fatal.

Let’s explore what that means:

Food Intolerance

Are there some foods that just don’t seem to agree with you? Maybe milkshakes come with a side of cramps,  scrambled eggs have you running for the bathroom, or coffee gives you the jitters (and not the kind that help you cross things off your to do list). If you ever feel off after eating, you may just have a food intolerance or two.

10 Most Common Signs of Food Intolerance

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Flushing of the skin
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Rashes
  • Reflux
  • Runny nose

Most Common Food Intolerances

Because food intolerance symptoms can start in as little as a few hours (but can also be delayed up to two full days) don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to pinpoint what exactly is disagreeing with your digestive system.

When you start exhibiting signs of intolerance, medical professionals often recommend trying an elimination diet where you stop eating foods known to cause intolerances until all symptoms subside, then start reintroducing them one-by-one to discover which are triggering your discomfort.

But which foods do you start eliminating? Some of the most common intolerances are:

  • Dairy
  • Gluten
  • Caffeine
  • Eggs
  • Food colorings
  • Yeast
  • Salicylates (chemicals found naturally in certain fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, nuts, spices, and honey, as well as in some preservatives)
  • Amines (compounds found naturally in fermented foods, cured meats, soured foods, aged cheeses, and more)
  • FODMAPs (short for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols; short-chain carbohydrates found in bread, beans, lentils, beer, etc.)
  • Sulfites (chemicals found naturally in grapes and select cheeses, as well as in some food, drink, and medical preservatives)
  • Fructose (simple sugars found naturally in fruits and vegetables, as well as in a number of naturally- and artificially- sweetened foods and drinks)
  • Aspartame (found in sugar substitutes)
  • MSG (food-additive used as a flavor enhancer)
  • Sugar alcohols (found in zero calorie alternatives to sugar)

In most cases these intolerances are non-life threatening and may even be “cured” with over-the-counter or prescription medications which allow you to continue enjoying your favorite foods.

Food Allergies

More urgent and potentially dangerous than intolerances, food allergies can prompt adverse reactions within a few minutes of ingestion and can even occur in the mere presence of the problem food.

Being able to spot an allergic reaction and administer an epinephrine or adrenaline injection can even be the difference between life and death in some cases, so knowing the signs and symptoms is critical.

Most Common Signs of an Allergic Reaction

  • Hives
  • Rash
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Incontinence
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Faintness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Anaphylaxis (swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat)

It’s important to note that epinephrine or adrenaline injections are not meant to take the place of medical treatment in an emergency, but instead provide some degree of relief as you wait for help to arrive.

9 Most Common Food Allergies (AKA The “Big 9”)

While all foods have the potential to trigger an allergic reaction, there are nine that account for the majority of reactions. If you suspect you’re allergic to something you’ve eaten, it’s likely to:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios, and brazil nuts)
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, etc.)
  • Shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp, mussels, etc.)
  • Sesame (as of the Summer of 2019, the FDA does not yet require food manufacturers to list sesame as an allergen on product labels, so exercise extreme caution before purchasing and consuming any item if you know or expect you are allergic to sesame)

Because there is no known cure for food allergies at this time, the best and only way to stay safe is to completely avoid substances that bother you, doing your best to prevent a reaction rather than having to treat one.

Diagnosing Food Allergies & Intolerances

Undiagnosed food sensitivities can be nerve-wracking to say the least, but thankfully you don’t have to live in fear or discomfort. If detected and planned around, intolerances can be managed, and allergic reactions can be avoided all together. Take charge of your diet and feel better than ever with comprehensive testing services at a nearby ARCpoint Labs location, or in the privacy and comfort of your own home with an Food Sensitivity Home Kit.

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