Food Allergies vs Food Intolerances: What You Need To Know

Food allergies and food intolerances both involve adverse reactions to foods, but they have some important differences. Understanding these differences is crucial for managing your or your child’s condition appropriately.

What is a Food Allergy?

Food allergies happen in situations where the body’s immune system overreacts to a food that is harmless to most people. The immune system mistakenly identifies a food protein as a threat and produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to attack it. Upon eating that food again, IgE antibodies trigger the release of chemicals like histamine that cause an allergic reaction.

Common food allergy symptoms include:

  • Itching, Hives or eczema
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue, throat or other body parts
  • Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath
  • Vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Anaphylaxis – a life-threatening reaction involving impaired breathing, lowered blood pressure, etc.

Foods that most commonly trigger allergic reactions include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, shellfish, fish, soy and wheat. Reactions usually begin within minutes to 2 hours after eating.

What is Food Intolerance?

Food intolerances do not engage the immune system. Instead, they occur due to difficulties digesting certain foods. For example, lactose intolerance happens when people lack enough lactase enzyme to properly digest milk sugars.

Common food intolerance symptoms include:

  • Bloating, gas, cramping, diarrhoea
  • Headaches, fatigue
  • Rashes, acne
  • Congestion, sinus trouble
  • Joint pain

Food intolerances tend to cause more gradual, chronic symptoms compared to sudden acute allergic reactions. People may be able to tolerate small amounts of problem foods. Common trigger foods include dairy, gluten, additives like MSG, and FODMAPs.

Key Differences Between Food Allergies and Intolerances

Food Allergies Food Intolerances
Involve immune system Do not involve immune system
Acute reactions Chronic reactions
Small amounts trigger May tolerate small amounts
Common in young kids Can develop at any age
Often outgrown Typically lifelong
Can be life-threatening Annoying, not life-threatening
Blood/skin tests diagnose Elimination diet diagnoses

Diagnosing Food Allergies vs Intolerances

Identifying whether you have a food allergy or intolerance is important, since management differs.

For food allergies, skin prick testing and blood tests check for IgE antibodies to foods. Elimination diets are also used – suspending suspected foods, then reintroducing them to watch for reactions.

For intolerances, elimination diets are the main diagnostic method. Suspected trigger foods are removed from the diet for several weeks, then reintroduced one at a time while monitoring symptoms. Food intolerances can’t be detected through standard allergy skin or blood testing.

Keep a detailed food and symptom journal to help identify your triggers. See an allergist or dietitian for proper diagnosis and supervision. Don’t attempt restrictive diets on your own, as nutritional deficits may occur.

Treating Food Allergies vs Intolerances

For food allergies, strict avoidance of the offending food is essential. Check labels vigilantly. Epinephrine auto-injectors like EpiPens must be carried to treat anaphylaxis. Antihistamines help mild symptoms.

For intolerances, limiting trigger foods helps control symptoms. Some people must eliminate problem foods completely, while others can tolerate small servings. Lactase enzyme tablets aid lactose intolerance. Probiotics may alleviate other intolerances.

In both cases, work with a dietitian to ensure you meet nutritional needs despite dietary restrictions. Careful label reading, asking questions at restaurants, and carrying emergency medication enables living well with food allergies or intolerances.

Impact on Quality of Life

Living with food allergies or intolerances can negatively impact quality of life. Fears around accidental exposure and social limitations are common. Strict avoidance diets may affect nutrition. Developing emergency action plans and carrying epinephrine can cause anxiety.

Fortunately, several strategies help enhance wellbeing:

  • Connect with support groups – Share experiences and tips with others managing food hypersensitivities. Reduce isolation.
  • Educate family and friends – Open communication ensures your needs are accommodated at social gatherings.
  • Explore allergy-friendly cuisines – Diversify your diet within your restrictions. Adapt cultural dishes you enjoy.
  • Speak to a therapist – Address fears, anxiety or depression related to your condition. Gain coping methods.
  • Focus on what you CAN eat – Don’t obsess over restrictions. Nourish yourself with delicious, safe foods.

Prioritizing self-care improves coping skills and resilience. Don’t hesitate to ask for help in managing your food allergies or intolerances.

Development of Food Allergies

The development of food allergies, especially in children, remains somewhat mysterious. Research points to several contributing factors:

  • Genetics – Family history of allergies increases risk.
  • Age – Young children have immature guts and immune systems. Most outgrow allergies.
  • Environment – Western lifestyles and hygiene hypothesis may promote allergies.
  • Diet – Nutrition likely influences immune responses. Omega fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants play a role.
  • Route of exposure – Eating foods may provoke different responses than skin contact.
  • Gut health – Disrupted gut microbiome and leaky gut syndrome may contribute.

Understanding risk factors aids prevention. Pregnant women and young children should emphasize a balanced diet with key nutrients. Probiotic foods support healthy gut flora. Introducing higher-risk foods slowly and carefully allows monitoring for reactions.

While more research is underway, focus on providing optimal nutrition and gut health in early years. If food allergies develop, proper diagnosis and management enables living well.

Living with Food Hypersensitivities

Having food allergies or intolerances requires vigilance around trigger foods. Some helpful tips include:

  • Read all product labels carefully
  • Inform servers at restaurants about dietary needs
  • Have safe snacks on hand for travel
  • Wash hands before/after eating
  • Ask about ingredients at social gatherings
  • Teach children how to manage their condition
  • Carry emergency medication if prescribed
  • See a dietitian to ensure balanced nutrition

While food allergies and intolerances can be challenging, being informed enables taking proactive steps to stay safe and healthy. Arm yourself with knowledge, identify your personal triggers, and work with specialists for optimal management. With some care and planning, you can thrive with food hypersensitivities.

Photo “Meal” by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Health

Zoom Health is a leading UK supplier of Home Health Tests and Earplugs

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