Have you ever felt upset after eating certain foods? Perhaps it is because some types of food don't agree with your body. Maybe they upset your stomach, or perhaps they give you a headache. Other times, you may start to feel itchy or break out in a rash, or you just don't feel right.
If you have ever felt like this, you may be sensitive, allergic, or intolerant to certain foods. But how can you tell whether you have a food allergy, sensitivity or intolerance?
Food sensitivity, food intolerance, and food allergy are three different conditions that seem to be used interchangeably. However, there are several differences between the three conditions. In particular, each condition differs in both causes and symptoms, especially in its treatments.
This blog will discuss how each of these conditions is different from one another, exploring Food Sensitivity vs. Intolerance vs. Allergy, each of their symptoms, and the best way to treat them. So, if you suspect you may be suffering from one of these conditions, keep on reading!
Contents:The Bottom Line
With the rise of social media, blogs, and the ever-growing health and wellness trend, people have become more aware of the importance of nutrition. However, there's also a great deal of misinformation about this trend.
For instance, gluten-free and dairy-free diets are on the rise. But the question is: are they indispensable? Not necessarily. Depending on each particular case, one may or may not need to extract certain foods from their diets, so discussing the differences between allergies, intolerance, and sensitivity is important.
Let's quickly explore each of these conditions to understand the difference between food intolerance, allergies, and sensitivity.
- Food intolerance: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), food intolerance is defined as "a condition in which a person has an adverse reaction to a food or food component that is not due to an allergic reaction." In other words, food intolerance is caused by enzyme deficiencies, resulting in reduced tolerance to certain elements found in foods like sugars and starch (1).
- Food Allergies: On the other hand, according to the FDA (2), food allergies develop when our immune system overreacts to specific proteins in food as if it were a foreign invader. In this case, food allergies can range in severity from mild symptoms such as hives and lip swelling to severe, life-threatening symptoms such as anaphylaxis, which can cause fatal respiratory problems and shock.
- Food Sensitivity: The Global Autoimmune Institute has described food sensitivity as an "unofficial medical diagnosis" since it is still under debate (3).
But now that we've seen each of these conditions, let's analyse them in detail to better understand them at a deeper level, including their different causes, symptoms, and treatments.
We still are not 100% sure about the causes of food sensitivity. Still, scientists believe the immune system detects certain foods as aggressive agents, generating reactions where substances are released that can be harmful to the body, thus causing what we know as food sensitivity. Patients sensitive to certain foods typically experience symptoms such as headaches, inflammation, abdominal pain, muscle pain, tiredness, fatigue, and skin issues, among others.
While the scientific community has not reached a consensus yet, the European Society of Neurogastroenterology & Motility suggests that sensitivities could be caused by an over activation of the immune system after exposure to certain foods. This can lead to allergies or an autoimmune response, similar to the case of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Food sensitivity shares symptoms with other common ailments—making it hard to identify and diagnose. However, if you find yourself displaying these symptoms (4), they could result from a food sensitivity:
- Headaches and migraines
- Bloating and abdominal pain
- Gastrointestinal distress
Food sensitivity symptoms can be reduced and avoided by eliminating trigger foods from your diet. Another thing that can help is having emergency medication handy. Food sensitivity shares symptoms with the other food-related conditions, and although it may not be as severe, it still wouldn't hurt to be prepared.
Anything your doctor indicates can help. Besides, trying all-natural remedies is also advisable. A good example is the Complete Gut Repair System—a 3-formula package that works to repair the gut lining, reduce bloating and gas, and boost nutrient absorption.
This digestive system disorder is common in people with digestive system disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Food intolerance is so common that 15-20% of the population is estimated to be affected by the disorder (5).
Food intolerance occurs as a result of the body's inability to digest a certain type of food, due to the lack of digestive enzymes or a sensitivity to certain chemicals. Caffeine, food colouring, gluten, additives, preservatives, and lactose are commonly associated with food intolerance (6).
We all need digestive enzymes to break down all types of foods. When we lack certain enzymes, our bodies won't be able to digest specific foods.
For instance, people with lactose intolerance do not have enough lactase—the enzyme that helps break lactose down into smaller molecules for the body to absorb. When this occurs, the patient will likely suffer from bloating, diarrhoea, gas, spasms, and stomachache resulting from lactose remaining in the digestive tract.
Fructose is present in fruit, honey, and some vegetables as a form of sugar. Although rare, fructose intolerance can also be due to the lack of a specific enzyme. In such instances, it is often a hereditary intolerance (7).
There's a common type known as fructose malabsorption – in which the body is missing a protein needed to absorb the sugar from the intestine. For people living with this issue, fructose ferments in the gut resulting in bloating, cramps, diarrhoea, and gas.
Although they share similar symptoms, this condition is different from the autoimmune system response to gluten, known as celiac disease.
Gluten is found in barley, wheat, rye, and other cereals, and it is a type of protein. People with gluten intolerance—also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity—experience bloating, nausea, and pain whenever they consume gluten. Common symptoms associated with the condition include anxiety, brain fog, depression, fatigue, headaches, and joint pain, among others (8).
Just like food allergies, the symptoms of food intolerance may take a while to manifest, even several hours. The effects can last from several hours to days, and the severity of symptoms depends on the amount of trigger food the person has ingested.
Someone with food intolerance will often experience discomfort soon after eating certain foods. The symptoms vary and usually involve digestive issues.
Common symptoms of food intolerance include:
- Bloating and excess gas
- Stomach pain and diarrhoea
- Headaches and migraine
- Heartburn and nausea.
Food intolerance can be difficult to differentiate from a food allergy as signs and symptoms of both conditions overlap (9).
The best way to avoid triggering symptoms of food intolerance is simply to avoid triggering foods. If you cannot totally avoid them, then, eat in smaller quantities and less often.
With food intolerance resulting from the body's inability to digest certain foods properly, it is advisable to counter the condition by taking supplements that aid in the digestion process.
Also, it is essential to note that symptoms of food intolerance improve once the individual eliminates triggering ingredients from their diet. And since these symptoms are connected to digestion, they return once trigger foods get reintroduced. So, it is advisable to stay away from them as much as possible.
Struggling with food intolerance? Check out our Complete Gut Repair System – a 3-formula package that works together to repair the gut lining, reduce bloating and gas, and boost nutrient absorption.
Food allergies are immune system reactions that occur not long after eating certain foods. With allergies, simply tasting a tiny amount of the allergy-causing food can be enough to trigger reactions such as digestive problems and hives.
In some people, the reaction could be swollen airways that restrict breathing. In severe instances, the patient can end up with anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction (10).
While there are no cures for food allergies, it is known that children sometimes outgrow their food allergies as they advance in age—becoming allergy-free by the time they get into adulthood. An estimated 8% of children under the age of 5 and 4% of adults are affected by food allergies (11).
For people with food allergies, their immune system mistakes specific substances in food as harmful. This results in the immune system triggering the cells to release immunoglobulin, an antibody that neutralises allergens.
These antibodies are now put on high alert by the immune system. Next time the person eats even the smallest bit of that food, the antibodies sense it, signalling the immune system to release histamine and other combative chemicals into the bloodstream. It is these chemicals that cause allergy symptoms.
Certain proteins trigger most instances of food allergy in some types of food. Foods like:
- Peanuts, walnuts, tree nuts, pecans, and wheat
- Fish, shrimp, lobster, and crab
- Chicken eggs
- Milk and soy
People react differently to allergies. While some experience discomfort but no severe reaction, others can have an allergic reaction ranging from downright frightening to life-threatening.
Usually, symptoms develop within a few minutes to 2 hours after the food has been eaten. On rare occasions, however, symptoms can delay for hours.
These are signs and symptoms to look out for when a reaction to a food allergy is suspected:
- Nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain
- Fainting, dizziness, and lightheadedness
- Heavy breathing and nasal congestion
- Sudden skin irritation, itching, hives, eczema
For some people, food allergies trigger a reaction referred to as anaphylaxis. This reaction can be life-threatening as its symptoms are so severe they usually require urgent medical attention. The symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- A rapid pulse
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Loss of consciousness
- Swollen throat or the sensation of a lump in one's throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Constriction and tightening of airways
- A severe drop in blood pressure
The best thing to do to treat food allergies is to eliminate trigger foods from your diet and always be prepared with emergency medications your doctor has advised you to take.
Also, it is essential to wear some medical alert identification that indicates your food allergies to receive appropriate emergency assistance if you are incapacitated.
In most cases, doctors may prescribe antihistamines, which are medications for reducing congestion and itching. Other times they could recommend using corticosteroids in the case of severe allergic reactions to reduce swelling. And finally, epinephrine for emergencies or symptoms of anaphylaxis. However, it is important to check with your doctor to see the best option for you.
To wrap up, it is important to determine whether you suffer from any sensitivity, allergy, or intolerance to avoid feeling upset and protect your health. We cannot stress enough how important it is to check in with your doctor if you suspect you may be suffering from any of these conditions.
In some cases, it is hard to pinpoint what exactly is causing you discomfort, so the doctor may need to order a series of tests. And if still that doesn't help, we also recommend you try an elimination diet or the autoimmune protocol diet (AIP), or perhaps the FODMAP diet to identify what is causing your symptoms.
Ideally, you may want to choose a protocol that is tailored to your individual needs. So, we highly recommend consulting with a dietitian or nutritionist to help you identify the best diet for you. Meanwhile, we've prepared a free self-test that may help you better understand what your body needs.