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Distinguishing Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerance - Healthy News For A Healthy You

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Distinguishing Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerance

Adverse food reactions are frequently labeled as allergies, when they can be mere food intolerances. The Mayo Clinic distinguishes both types of food responses, attributing food allergies to an immune reaction influencing multiple body systems, whereas food intolerances commonly affect the digestive tract. There are distinguishing characteristics in both food allergies and food intolerance – let’s explore each one in greater detail.

The Mayo Clinic outlines 6-Common Causes of Food Intolerances:

1. Lack of specific enzymes: Enzymes assist in the breakdown of food substances, proper digestion, and absorption of nutrients. Some individuals lack specific enzymes required for the digestive breakdown of certain foods. For example, a deficiency in the enzyme lactase affects the metabolic breakdown of the sugar lactose, causing lactose intolerance.

2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): IBS is a fluctuating bowel disorder distinguished by episodes of diarrhea, constipation, or both. Other symptoms include weight loss, abdominal pain, and bloody stools.

3. Food poisoning: Food organisms such as E. coli and other bacteria’s can negatively impact the digestive system. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain & cramping, and diarrhea.

4. Reaction to food additives: The Mayo Clinic shares how sulfates found in food preservatives, some canned goods, and wine can trigger asthma in some people. The actual food in itself is not the cause of the intolerance, but rather the additives that were introduced to the foods. For example, an individual can experience intolerance to processed peanut butter, but have no negative reaction to eating natural peanuts. In this case it’s not a peanut allergy, but an intolerance to additives found in the peanut butter.

5. Psychological factors: The digestive process is also influenced by emotional factors like stress, anxiety, and other changes in mood. Although food in itself may be healthy, psychological factors can influence the digestion of foods.

6. Celiac Disease: Celiac Disease involves the immune system, yet individuals are not at risk of experiencing anaphylaxis (severe allergic response). Symptoms are often evident after consumption of gluten-rich foods like breads, rice, and other wheat products. Digestive disturbances such as abdominal distension, cramping, bloating, and diarrhea are commonly reported. Other symptoms include depression, bone pain, and mouth sores.

Unlike food intolerances, food allergies commonly influence more than one body system. Allergic responses can range anywhere from mild to severe anaphylactic emergency, to even death. Most individuals are first alerted to personal allergens by an allergic reaction, yet various tests are available to detect allergens without the need of experiencing an allergic response.

The Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) organization lists the following as common food allergies: Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. These allergens account for 90% of food-related allergic reactions in the United States. FARE goes on to mention, “While only eight foods (milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy) account for approximately 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions, a person can be allergic to virtually any food.”

Other unconventional allergies listed by FARE are corn, gelatin, meat, seeds, and spices. Sesame, sunflower, and poppy seeds are most commonly reported under the classification of seed allergies. Other examples of food allergens include meats such as beef, chicken, mutton, and pork. Most of the unconventional food allergies are related to one of the eight main allergies. For example, some people experience allergy symptoms when eating chocolate. The allergic response may not necessarily be to cocoa (the main ingredient in chocolate products), but rather to milk, which is commonly added to many food products containing chocolate.

Signs and Symptoms: Symptoms of food intolerance include nausea, vomiting, cramping, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal distress. In addition to digestive disturbances a true allergic reaction displays symptoms like tingling of the mouth, itchy tongue, hives, swelling in the face and throat, and in severe cases anaphylaxis.

Managing Food Intolerances & Food Allergies: 

Whether it’s food allergy or food intolerance, individuals experiencing reactions to certain foods should avoid them altogether. It’s best to consult with a physician to test for specific allergens, and for further nutritional guidance. With severe allergic reactions your physician may recommend an EpiPen – a shot of epinephrine that is self-injected during an emergency allergic reaction or anaphylaxis. Other medication regimens include steroids, antihistamines, and short-acting bronchodilators.  

Managing food allergies can be challenging as food labels only alert consumers to common allergens such as peanuts, eggs, soy, and wheat. The key is become familiar with specific allergy-prone ingredients to prevent an allergic response. It’s important to note allergic responses can intensify through time, and should not be taken lightly. Even when certain foods cause minor allergic reactions, they should still be avoided. On the other hand, if someone is allergic to a type of meat (e.g. fish), he or she can still consume other meats like chicken, beef, and pork. In this particular example, it’s advisable to refrain from seafood’s, but other types of meats can be eaten. FARE expands on this concept mentioning an allergy to eggs doesn’t imply the need to stop eating chicken, but rather such individuals with this type of allergy should avoid products containing eggs.

Allergic reactions can intensify through time posing health risks. On the other hand, food intolerances normally affect the digestive tract, rather than causing a systematic response. If you are experiencing food reactions, it’s best to consult with a practitioner for further testing and evaluation.

* All information shared in this article should be discussed with your healthcare provider prior to incorporating any suggestions. This article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide advice or direct client decisions.

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Yeneilyn is a Registered Nurse in the state of Florida since 2006. Her nursing practice began in the field of Cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Hospital and expanded to care for clients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). She was provided the opportunity as LPN Instructor, which changed the course of her nursing career. She states, “Teaching nursing students expanded my view on positive influences nurses contribute beyond beside care. Nurses are central leaders in health education, client advocacy, and disease prevention.” Currently, Yeneilyn writes health articles and prepares Continuing Education (C.E.) courses for healthcare professionals. She continues her studies in the field of Nursing Education and evidenced-based nursing practice. In her free time she enjoys sharing time with family and friends.

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  • Ruth Bejar Wednesday, 02 July 2014

    distinguishing food allergy vs, food intollerance

    fantastic article, kudos to you Yaneilyn, very informative, I have to copy it to follow all the details

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