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Understanding the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and Food Allergy

Understanding the Difference Between a Food Intolerance and Food Allergy

As if all the conflicting information about healthy diets isn’t confusing enough, you’ve noticed that you or your kids have negative reactions to certain foods that you eat. Does that mean you have a food allergy?

Food allergies are common and are on the rise. About one in 10 adults and one in 13 kids in the United States have food allergies; more than half of those adults and 41% of those children have experienced a severe reaction.

Food allergies are the result of an overactive immune system. As with other allergies, they can trigger a serious, life-threatening condition called anaphylaxis. 

Although food allergies share many symptoms with food intolerances and food sensitivity, they’re not the same thing. Food intolerances and sensitivity are uncomfortable, but they’re unlikely to lead to serious consequences.

If you’ve had a negative reaction to certain foods, our expert allergist Catherine Fuller, MD, conducts allergy tests at our office in West Los Angeles, California. Once she identifies foods you’re allergic to, she helps you design a diet that keeps you nourished, comfortable, and safe.

Do you have food allergies? Or do you have a food intolerance or sensitivity instead? How can you tell the difference, and what do you do about them? We cover what you need to know right here.

Sensitivities and intolerance affect your GI tract

Both food sensitivity and food intolerance create symptoms that primarily affect your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Each is slightly different, but they may create similar symptoms, such as diarrhea, bloating, and brain fog.

Food intolerance

With food intolerance, your body can’t break down and digest a particular food. A common issue is lactose intolerance. About 65% of the world’s population can’t break down milk proteins after age 7 or 8. Many Asian cultures don’t include dairy in their diets.

Ghee, for instance, is butter that’s been heated until the milk proteins separate from the oil. This clarified butter has been a staple in Indian and Pakistani kitchens for thousands of years. Removing the milk proteins renders ghee more digestible and also makes refrigeration unnecessary. 

Another food intolerance is gluten intolerance. The difficulty arises when trying to break down certain proteins found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. If your body recognizes gluten as a toxin, it can cause inflammation throughout your body.

An extreme form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the US population. If you have celiac disease, you may suffer unintentional weight loss and intestinal damage.

Food sensitivity

Food sensitivities can develop if you tend to eat the same foods repeatedly. You may not have an intolerance to the food, but because you expose yourself to the food’s constituents constantly, they may build up in your body and cause inflammation. This can then lead to symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or other GI discomfort.

To test if you have a food sensitivity or intolerance, remove the most likely culprits from your diet:

Eliminate suspect foods for 2-4 weeks. Five days after your symptoms resolve, you can re-introduce one suspect food. If you don’t experience any symptoms, you can consider that food safe. If you have symptoms, consider eliminating it from your diet.

You can re-introduce a new food every three days. Pay attention to how your body responds and make sure you’re symptom-free before moving on to the next one.

Food allergies trigger immune responses

Although food allergies can cause GI symptoms that are similar to those of food sensitivities and intolerance, they’re more likely to cause dysfunction outside of the GI tract as well. Classic symptoms of food allergies are those that affect the respiratory system or the skin, such as hives.

If you suspect that you have a food allergy, rather than an intolerance or sensitivity, don’t wait to do an elimination diet. See Dr. Fuller for a food allergy test instead. Food allergies can cause serious, life-threatening reactions, such as:

Every 10 seconds, someone heads to the emergency room because of an allergic reaction to food, and symptoms that affect the heart, lungs, or throat can be life-threatening. Seek medical care immediately if you think you or someone else is experiencing anaphylaxis.

Do you have food allergies, or are they just intolerances or sensitivities? Find out for sure by calling Catherine Fuller, MD, today at 310-828-7978 or requesting an appointment online for food allergy testing today.

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