Health Care Lifestyle

The Difference Between a Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

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For a growing number of individuals and families, living with food allergies or sensitivities is an unfortunate and often frightening reality, one that is commonly misunderstood by those without the personal experience and awareness.

We’re here to validate your concerns and highlight the key differences between food allergies and food intolerances, along with the most common food allergies, symptoms for awareness, and tips on how to live life to the fullest with dietary restrictions.

Food Allergies vs. Food Sensitivities

For food allergy sufferers and parents of children with food allergies, the common confusion between food allergies and food sensitivities by others can be evident. While food allergies can range anywhere on the spectrum from mild to severe, the key difference is the former can be life-threatening and the latter is not.

An allergy is caused by an immune response to what the body perceives as a foreign object, so a food allergy is the immune system reacting to proteins in a specific food, whereas the digestive system is responsible for a food intolerance.

If you are or your child is affected by food allergies or intolerances, read on for key facts and tips. Knowledge is power and there is all the hope in the world to live a healthy life, stay safe and still enjoy eating satisfying foods no matter your situation.

What Is a Food Intolerance?

Food intolerance is an adverse reaction to a food that occurs in the digestive system. It can be difficult to determine the difference between food allergies and food intolerance since the symptoms can look and feel very similar.

Food Intolerance Symptoms

Since the digestive system is involved in the development of food intolerances, the symptoms tend to be gastrointestinal, including:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Nausea
  • Stomachache

While these symptoms are uncomfortable and can even be debilitating, they are not life threatening as in the case of anaphylaxis in a food allergy.

What Is a Food Allergy?

Food allergies occur from an abnormal immune response to certain proteins in specific foods. The symptoms are the body’s way of reacting against what it perceives as dangerous. Allergic reactions can be mild, moderate or severe.

There is currently no cure for food allergies, but there are therapies and lifestyle choices to help those affected manage.

9 Most Common Food Allergies

  1. Dairy: Avoid foods that contain milk, milk powder, butter and cream. Cow’s milk is most commonly the source of milk allergies. Some with cow’s milk allergies may be able to have goat’s or sheep’s milk, but many cannot have these either. Look for alternative, plant-based milks, such as rice or oat, that do not conflict with other food allergies you may have like nuts or soy. If you do not have a nut or soy allergy, almond, cashew and soy milks are popular alternatives.
  2. Eggs: Most people with an egg allergy are allergic to the egg whites rather than the yolks. Egg allergies are common in children and among the most common food allergies that are eventually outgrown.
  3. Tree nuts: Examples are almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, cashews and coconuts. Avoid any product that contains specific allergens, such as nut butters, nut milks and nut oils.
  4. Peanuts: Peanut allergies can be fatal. Some people cannot even touch or inhale residue from peanuts. When eating out or in public, always let those who will be handling your food know of your allergy and that care must be taken to avoid cross-contamination with other foods. It is uncommon to outgrow a peanut allergy, and they often grow worse with every exposure.
  5. Shellfish: Avoid shrimp, prawns, crayfish, lobster, squid and scallops.
  6. Wheat: A true wheat allergy is different from celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity, which both disrupt the digestive system, but are not life-threatening. A wheat allergy causes an abnormal immune response to one of the many proteins found in wheat.
  7. Soy: Soy is found in many foods, so always be mindful to read the labels. Avoid soybeans (edamame), soy milk, soy sauce and tofu.
  8. Fish: Fish allergies are common, but they may be confused with an adverse reaction to contaminated fish. It is common for fish allergies to develop later in life rather than in childhood.
  9. Sesame: Avoid foods that contain sesame seeds and sesame oil such as hummus, certain breads, sushi and stir fry dishes.

Some of the less common allergies include avocado, banana, stone fruits (example: peaches), kiwi, celery, tomato and garlic.

Food Allergy Symptoms

If you or anyone in your care experiences the following, it’s important to treat the symptoms immediately. Seek medical attention for anaphylaxis or if any other symptoms are severe:

  • Anaphylaxis (look for constriction/tightening of the airways, lump in the throat, dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness)
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting
  • Hives, itchy skin
  • Itching, tingling in or around mouth
  • Nasal congestion
  • Stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea
  • Swollen lips, face, tongue, throat
  • Vomiting (likely caused from throat swelling rather than gastrointestinal issues)
  • Wheezing

What Is Anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is when the throat swells from an allergic reaction and can be life-threatening. Most people with food allergies carry an EpiPen (epinephrine), which can be used in emergencies to counteract severe allergic reactions/anaphylaxis.

If you do use the EpiPen, you still need to go to the hospital. Antihistamines such as Benadryl can be used for mild or moderate reactions. The key is to make sure your airways are open with no difficulty breathing.

What Is Food Protein Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome (FPIES)?

Like other food allergies, FPIES reactions are triggered by eating a particular food. This type of allergy is often misdiagnosed at first due to its symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea and low blood pressure. An FPIES reaction can cause severe dehydration that requires medical attention.

There is no blood or skin test to confirm FPIES, so your allergist will likely recommend avoiding trigger food(s). Fortunately, most children outgrow this condition by age 4.

Living With Dietary Restrictions

Living with food restrictions, from allergies or sensitivities, is a lifestyle all its own. Most of the common food allergens very commonly appear in many recipes, dishes and meals, which presents a challenge to work around.

There are many ways to safely add variety to your life with food allergies or intolerances by having options. Learn about the many alternatives available such as dairy-free milks and ice creams and gluten-free breads and baked goods. It can be fun to get creative and learn to make vegan desserts if someone has a dairy or egg allergy.

Most grocery stores and restaurants now offer plenty of options and alternatives for people with dietary restrictions. When eating out, make sure to let the restaurant know about any food restrictions so they can help keep you and your family safe. It may feel overwhelming, but the key is to first know what you can’t have so that you can better work with what you can have.

Whole-Person Care to Heal Your Body, Ease Your Mind and Lift Your Spirit

Our goal is to help you feel whole. If you or a loved one is struggling with a food allergy or intolerance, connect with one of our experts who will help you navigate your dietary issues with skill and compassion — getting you the tests you need so you can know, and the care you deserve so you can thrive.

Find a provider and request an appointment by visiting us here. You deserve to feel whole.

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