A vast amount of people claim they have a food intolerance or allergy, with some people often using “food intolerance” as a socially acceptable way to state they have a dislike to certain foods. Do you fall into this category of people?
On the other hand, physical reactions to certain foods and food products are very common, but in most cases, they are caused by a food intolerance rather than a food allergy. There is often a lot of confusion between the two, as they have similar signs and symptoms. However, it is important you are aware of the difference in the signs and symptoms of both a food allergy and an intolerance, as in rare cases they can have major effects on health leading to fatality.

So, what is the difference?

What is a food allergy?

Food allergies are rare, only affecting approximately 1-2% of adults, and although they are more common in children, some outgrow their allergies as they get older. An allergy occurs when your body’s immune system falsely believes that certain proteins in food are harmful, which initiates a defence system made up of antibodies to fight it. A protein or food substance that triggers an allergy is known as an allergen, when you eat one of these allergens it may cause an allergic reaction in the respiratory or digestive systems or to the skin.

The most common food allergens include;

  • Nuts, both peanuts and tree nuts (walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews and hazelnuts).
  • Fruits, including apples, berries and peaches
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish and shellfish (crab, lobster and prawns)

Allergic reactions can range from mild to severe, depending on each individual and the amount of the specific allergen taken. The symptoms of a food allergy usually occur immediate and affect more than one area of the body at the same time, common symptoms include;

  • The digestive system: nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhoea
  • Respiratory system: wheezing, coughing, congestion and a runny nose
  • Skin: redness, swelling, eczema, hives

In the most extreme cases, you can have an anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction that can often be life threatening.

What is a food intolerance?

Do you often feel bloated or have stomach cramps after eating certain foods? A food intolerance is difficulty digesting certain foods, due to being unable to break down specific enzymes causing the gut to react poorly. A food intolerance is distinct from a food allergy, because it is a digestive system response rather than an immune system response. Lactose intolerance is a common food intolerance, occurs when the body is unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in mainly milk and dairy products.

People often ask, “Should I cut out bread and starchy carbohydrate foods to stop bloating?”

Well, if eating these products causes you bloating and other digestive symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain, you may be sensitive to wheat. Therefore, avoiding or reducing bread and starchy foods, such as pasta and cereals could improve your gut health. Other health problems caused by wheat are wheat allergy and coeliac disease.

Many people often classify coeliac disease as gluten intolerance, where the immune system is provoked by the protein, gluten, found in foods containing wheat, barley and rye. However, this is a contradiction of what a food intolerance actually is, as it only affects the digestive system. Therefore, coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks substances found in gluten. This damages the surface of the small intestines, disrupting the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.

Assessing a food intolerance

As individuals, we all react to certain food and drinks differently. An ingredient which may cause problems for one person, may be completely acceptable for another. Understanding your own individual food intolerances and how they affect your health and wellbeing, is important to ensure you make the best possible diet choices. This is the main reason we called our company My Nutrition -because it is specific to each person.

If you suspect you have a food allergy, start investing a little bit more of your time on yourself and your health by;

  • Learning which foods in which amounts cause you to suffer symptoms and limit your intake to amounts your body doesn’t react to. Keep a well-detailed food diary regularly to help find offending foods quickly.
  • Learn to read and understand food labels correctly, checking the ingredients for problem foods. Make sure to also check sauces and seasonings, as they may contain additives including MSG that may lead to symptoms.

Take home messages

1. The symptoms depend on the intake dose- Food allergies can be triggered by even a small amount of the problem food and occur every time the food is consumed. People with food allergies are generally advised to avoid these foods completely. Whereas, food intolerances often are dose related. People with food intolerance may not have symptoms unless they eat a large portion of the food or eat the food regularly. For example, a person with lactose intolerance may be able to drink milk in coffee or a single glass of milk, but becomes ill if they drink several glasses of milk.

2. Everyone is different- Symptoms of food allergy vary among individuals, and a single individual may not always experience the same symptoms during every reaction. Allergic reactions can affect the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract and cardiovascular system, and people develop food allergies at various ages.

3. Elimination of problem foods- If you’re confident you are intolerant to a particular food, the only way you can manage this is to, stop eating the problem food for a while, and then reintroduce small quantities while monitoring how much you can eat without symptoms coming on.

4. Could your symptoms be something else?
The symptoms of food intolerances are often very similar to those of other health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, stress, anxiety or inflammatory bowel disease. Therefore if you regularly have diarrhoea, bloating, tummy pain or skin rashes but you’re not certain of the cause, see your doctor.

Your GP may be able to diagnose the cause from your symptoms and medical history. If necessary, they’ll carry out tests, such as blood tests. Diagnosing food allergies can be as complicated as the medical condition itself.