FAQ: How do I know if I have a food allergy or intolerance?
FAQs - Did You Know?
Morgan Medeiros MSc
May 19, 2018

food allergy or intoleranceWith the focus on America’s Obesity Epidemic, consumers have shown a renewed interest in health and wellness. Many consumers have turned towards trendy elimination diets in an effort to eat better or shed unwanted pounds.While many consumers use strict dietary protocol as a method for weight management, others do so in an attempt to treat problematic gut issues or other signs of an undiagnosed food allergy or intolerance.

Even in the absence of a food allergy or intolerance, it’s not unusual to have individual reactions to certain types of foods- peppers might make you gassy, or hot sauce might give you heartburn.

However, for some consumers, these reactions are more severe, and can be life threatening allergies or signs of a food intolerance.

Of the two, food allergies are far more severe, while intolerances are typically bothersome, but rarely life threatening. About 4% of adults and 6% of children suffer from some sort of food allergy.

While some food allergies are outgrown, others are lifelong, with the chances of outgrowing an allergy dependent upon the type and severity of the specific allergy.

Milk and egg allergies, for example, are commonly outgrown, while those with allergies to peanuts or tree nuts are much less likely to outgrow their allergy.

Food intolerances are far more common than food allergies, and the symptoms are typically gastrointestinal, whereas the symptoms of a food allergy are diverse and may include wheezing, coughing or trouble breathing, hives, swelling, itching, vomiting, dizziness, and-most severely- anaphylaxis.

Whereas a food allergy is triggered by the immune system, a food intolerance is not.

Given the potentially life-threatening implications of a food allergy, the allergen is typically avoided until the affected individual has been shown to test safe. However, as previously noted, this does not always occur.

Meanwhile, a food intolerance is typically caused by the lack of a certain enzyme (for example, lactose intolerance) or a GI abnormality, rather an an overactive immune system.

Symptoms of a food allergy express themselves very quickly upon exposure to the allergen, whereas symptoms of a food intolerance may only appear with frequent ingestion or high volume consumption of the trigger food.

The most common symptoms of a food intolerance include bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, or other GI symptom. It should be noted that- contrary to popular thought- a food intolerance does not cause weight gain.

In many cases, food intolerances may cause weight loss through the damaging of the gastrointestinal tract.

So how do you know if you have an allergy or intolerance?

If your symptoms come on very quickly after exposure, that’s a strong indicator of an allergy: if you have the aforementioned allergy symptoms after consumption of a highly allergenic food (including but not limited to eggs, milk, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts), seek medical attention immediately.

It should be noted, however, that a food allergy can occur with virtually any food-not just the common culprits.

If your symptoms are more gradual, and are strictly related to GI disturbance, there’s a strong likelihood that you have a food intolerance.

Unlike allergy tests, there are no effective means to test for a food intolerance (save for Celiac disease and lactose intolerance).

Instead, the affected individual is typically seen by a nutritionist or their personal physician and instructed to keep a food log to assess triggers and symptoms that may indicate a food intolerance.

Keeping a food log is valuable, as it allows you to assess threshold (Can you have a small amount without symptoms?) and frequency of consumption, as well as look for indicators of other triggers that you might not have considered.

While it’s easy to assume one particular food is causing your GI distress, it may be another food or beverage altogether.

Regardless of your unique symptoms, it’s crucial to speak with a physician or nutritionist if you suspect a food allergy or intolerance.

Doing so will provide you with the resources and knowledge to successfully navigate restaurants and your own kitchen without the threat of a life-threatening reaction, or, in the case of a food intolerance- wicked gut ache.

Morgan Medeiros is a certified nutritionist, holding a both a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition. Morgan completed her undergraduate education at Central Washington University, and her graduate education at Northeastern University. During her time as a graduate student, Morgan focused her area of expertise in health education, weight management, and behavioral change. Morgan has experience working in areas of nutritional neuroscience and disease prevention, obesity prevention, and weight loss. Morgan also works in areas of nutritional analysis and menu labeling for restaurants, where she is able to creatively bridge her interest in food culture and health education. In her free time, Morgan enjoys traveling, reading, writing, running, and spending time with her family and friends (including- most importantly- her dog, Clyde).


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