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The Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities

The Difference Between Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities

If you’ve noticed a link between the foods you eat and negative symptoms, you might assume you have a food allergy, so you steer clear of that ingredient. Your survival instincts are right on target, but your terminology may be off. 

There are four distinct food-related conditions that all sound similar (well, at least three of them do), and it’s important to know which one you have so you can adjust accordingly. 

Here, Dr. James Lee and our team at Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care in Woodstock, Georgia, take a closer look at the differences between food intolerances, food sensitivities, food allergies, and celiac disease, and offer a practical way to discover what’s causing your reactions to certain foods.

Food intolerance

If you eat a slice of pizza and feel bloated, gassy, crampy, and nauseated afterward, you may have a food intolerance. We use this term to describe negative food reactions that don’t involve the immune system, but rather, they trigger an abnormal response in your gut. 

If you have a food intolerance, your digestive system has trouble processing a particular ingredient. One of the most common food intolerances is lactose, which is found in milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products.

Some people have a caffeine, fructose, or fructan intolerance and have to read labels carefully to avoid these sometimes-hidden ingredients.

Food sensitivity

Certain foods can trigger an abnormal response from your immune system — this is called food sensitivity. Like food intolerances, food sensitivities can provoke a long list of uncomfortable effects, such as:

Some research suggests that food sensitivities stem from a change in your gut microbiota, which may be caused by genetic or environmental factors, an imbalance of good-to-bad bacteria in your gut, or an insufficient amount of bacteria. 

The most common food sensitivity is gluten, which is found in wheat products, grains, certain condiments, some beverages, chips and pretzels, cereals, beer, and many processed foods.

Food allergy

Food intolerances and sensitivities can cause some pretty uncomfortable symptoms, but they aren’t life-threatening. Food allergies can be.

When you eat a food that triggers an allergic reaction, your body mistakes the ingredient (typically a protein) for a foreign invader. It mounts an attack by releasing histamines, and the response can be severe.

Some food allergies cause skin reactions such as itchy rashes, inflammation, and hives. You might also experience intense digestive issues like those we mentioned above. 

The most dangerous food allergy response is when it affects your respiratory system. You may:

This is called anaphylaxis, and if you don’t get immediate emergency medical care, it can be fatal.

About 9 out of 10 food allergies stem from a short list of culprits: peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, shellfish, fish, soybeans, and wheat.

Celiac disease

Although technically not a food allergy, celiac disease is worth mentioning here because it mimics gluten intolerances and sensitivities. Only about 1% of people suffer from this condition, but those who do can become very ill.

Unlike gluten sensitivities and intolerances, celiac disease doesn’t typically cause an immediate reaction. Instead, it builds over time, and if you keep eating gluten, you’ll experience severe diarrhea, weight loss, and may even become malnourished.

If you have celiac disease, you have to be diligent about reading labels and asking to see ingredient lists at restaurants to keep it out of your daily diet.

How to identify your food foes

The best way to find out which foods are causing you problems is to follow an elimination diet. To do this, you eliminate the foods you suspect and avoid them completely for a couple weeks. Then, you gradually add them back into your diet one by one to determine which one causes a negative reaction.

However, eliminating food groups from your diet can be dangerous and lead to nutrient deficiency. That’s why we recommend you work with Dr. Lee during the process. He guides you through the steps, advises you about which foods to eliminate, shows you how to keep a food journal, and helps you understand the results. 

If you have a food allergy, it’s critical that you and those you live and work with are aware of it. You may need to carry an emergency dose of epinephrine with you at all times in case you go into anaphylactic shock.

Food sensitivities and intolerances can be managed with conscientious meal management, and they may even decrease in severity or fade away completely over time. 

To learn more about food reactions, schedule an appointment at Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care — call or book online today.

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