Do you have a food allergy or an intolerance? In today’s world of gluten, soy, dairy, nut free everything it can be tough to know the difference. But it’s key to knowing what you can eat (if you want to) and what you definitely can’t.
Both allergies and intolerances can share similar symptoms, so this article will explain the differences between the two and how to get a proper diagnosis.
Food Intolerance vs. Allergy
The trouble with food intolerances is they can show up with similar symptoms to allergies. The biggest difference? With an intolerance, you tend to be able to eat a small amount of the food or find a replacement, such as lactose-free milk or gluten-free bread. This is because food intolerances don’t involve the immune system and are more of an irritation than anything else.
With a food allergy, your immune system sees the proteins in certain foods as something to attack, so they do. And according to FARE (the Food Allergy Research and Education Network) food allergies are on the rise with around “1 in every 13 children in the United States under age 18” suffering from a food allergy.
So what are the symptoms to look out for?
Common Allergy Symptoms
- A tingling sensation, or itch in the mouth
- Your skin popping up in a raised itchy rash (a.k.a “hives”), itching or eczema
- Swelling of body parts such as your lips, around the eyes, tongue and throat
- Issues with breathing, nasal congestion or wheezing
- Abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting
- Dizziness or fainting
Serious Allergy Symptoms
- Feeling faint
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Significantly increased heartbeat
- Clammy skin
- Severe distress and confusion
- Collapse or loss of consciousness
Food Intolerance Symptoms
- Stomach bloating
- Minor to severe headaches
- Cough and nasal congestion
- Increased feelings of anxiety, irritability and depression
- Abdominal pain or stomach ‘ache’
- Nausea and vomiting
- Irritable bowels, diarrhea, gas, or constipation
- Raised itchy red lumps, hives
Many of the symptoms cross over between the two, which can stop a proper diagnosis. With an intolerance most symptoms tend to affect the digestive system with stomach cramps, irritable bowels, and going to the toilet a lot…or not at all!
What Causes a Food Intolerance?
Food intolerances tend to be an irritation of the digestive system by certain foods.
Enzymes (…or lack of)
Enzymes are needed to digest your food properly as they break down your food to be digested. Having too little causes a chink in the armor. For example with lactose intolerance, there’s not enough of the lactase enzyme to break down the sugar in milk.
When this happens, your body can’t absorb it through the intestine and it stays where it shouldn’t be. This causes a whole host of problems like bloating, muscle spasms, gas and diarrhea.
Chemicals in Food
Some foods and drink (as delicious as they are) can have chemicals in that cause irritation and intolerance, such as:
- Amines in some cheeses
- Caffeine in coffee, tea and chocolate
- Aflatoxins in undercooked beans (as long as you fully cook beans, you’re fine)
This has been an increasing intolerance over the years. Food additives are what they say they are. They’re added to food to increase flavor, make them look better and/or preserve them for longer. Though there are a whole lot of additives out there, only a few are known to cause intolerance issues. These are:
- Nitrates – found in processed meats
- MSG (monosodium glutamate) – a flavor enhancer
- Sulfites – a food preserver or enhancer, often used in wine
- Colorings – mainly carmine (red) and annatto (yellow)
Though it’s not known why stress can cause food intolerance symptoms, it’s important to keep an eye on stress levels if you think you have an intolerance.
Getting a Diagnosis: Allergy Testing
Getting a proper diagnosis puts you in control. This way you can plan and prepare your meals, social gatherings and restaurant visits. If you feel like you have an allergy or intolerance you can take these 3 steps to getting a proper diagnosis:
- Keep a food diary – make note of all the food you eat for 7 days and how they make you feel. Your doctor may ask you to do this anyway so it’s a good way to be prepared for your visit.
- Cut out certain foods – if you feel you have an intolerance to bread or milk, for example, try cutting them out. See if it reduces your symptoms or improves the way you feel.
- Visit your doctor – if you’re tried controlling the symptoms at home with no luck, visit your doctor. Being tested for an allergy is the only way to know for sure.
It can be trial and error, but once you know which foods cause the problems you can manage the symptoms. Whether it’s finding food replacements or eliminating the food altogether, knowing the difference between an intolerance and an allergy will improve your quality of life for good.