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Food Intolerance vs Food Allergy – Learn How Different They Really Are

Food Intolerance vs Food Allergy

I am going to switch gears a little – this topic is a little different from my pregnancy blogs or hormone-related blog, but guess what? There is a strong link between hormones and food intolerance and/or allergies. I want to explain what is food intolerance vs food allergy, the possible symptoms, the types of allergies and diagnostic options.

If you have read my profile, I speak about the fact that I was diagnosed with celiac disease, which is a long-term and serious autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestines. Basically if I were to continue eating foods with gluten (found in wheat and 6 other grains), my body will attack its own intestines, leading to very serious consequences. Some short-term health effects would be the inability to digest nutrients, malnutrition, osteoporosis, type I diabetes, infertility, miscarriage and the list goes on. The long-term consequences are even more severe if you could even imagine that.

I know what it is like to suffer years from pain and discomfort without knowing the cause. I started to have abdominal cramping, bloating and gas when I was in my early 20s, and finally got diagnosed with celiac when I was 26. Unlike today, celiac disease was not really well-understood and often misdiagnosed for irritable bowl syndrome (IBS).

Luckily my abdominal pains were not a daily occurrence, but what that did, was make it even more confusing and harder to determine the cause. So for example, I am Italian and was raised eating pasta LITERALLY every day. I also was a very unhealthy eater at the time because I have never really seen myself as needing to watch my weight, although clearly I lacked the understanding of what healthy is. Just because your “skinny” does not mean you are healthy.

But anyway, because I ate cookies, cereal, bread and pasta EVERY DAY, and say had cramps once per week, I would try to figure out what I ate DIFFERENTLY that day. It was logical to assume that my pain and indigestion would be due to a sensitivity to a particular food which should cause me pain each time I ate it.  So never in my wildest dreams did I think I was allergic to wheat flour, that I ate multiple times a day, but only had cramps every week.

So after many unfortunate days of missing work, missing school, and being in my hotel room on vacation because of being in such extreme pain, I continuously went to the doctor until finally, it was suggested I do a colonoscopy. This not so pleasant exam, involves a long tube with a tiny camera, being inserted through the rectum, to check the health of your intestines. Through this test, the doctor was expecting to see something visually, as he thought my pain was stress-related, which can cause an ulcer in the intestines.

Nothing was visually seen during my colonoscopy but I am grateful a biopsy of my intestines was taken. It took almost 3 months to get a call with results. I remember thinking that I was back at square zero, and that I would never figure out what was wrong with me. When I got the call to go see the doctor in person, I was scared that it was something more serious than anticipated, and I prayed to God that it was a non-fatal disease or disorder.

Well God answered my prayers because although celiac disease is a long-term disorder and not curable, it can be managed. In turn, managing it through a gluten free diet, prevents all the serious health issues that can develop if it had not been diagnosed. On top of that, I was lucky to have been diagnosed so young, before serious consequences had been caused.

Can I be honest? My prayers had been answered but I did not take the news very well. The doctor told me I had celiac and basically said: You can never eat pasta and pizza again. I seriously reacted as if I had just been diagnosed with cancer. Yes, in hindsight I see how immature that was.

The doctor did not explain what gluten was, and that there were dozens of other options available to me. In reality though, in 2008 in Montreal, Canada, there were no restaurants that served gluten free options and the grocery stores were supplied with 1 type of gluten free pasta and bread, that tasted horrible.

Wheat-gluten-celiac-disease

But the reality was, I still had options at HOME and this is where my inspiration came to explore a healthier diet, and I learned what GOOD QUALITY food was really all about. Today the gluten free options are endless; it has come a long way.

But the moral of my story is that today, because I found out what the root cause of my digestion issue was, I have saved myself from a list of serious health issues, from always having low energy levels and bouts of painful abdominal cramps.

I was even tested for osteoporosis, which often goes hand-in-hand with Celiac disease because of malnutrition, and in this case, lack of calcium absorption in particular. I was diagnosed with osteopenia, which is borderline osteoporosis at age 26! After being on a gluten free diet for 2 years, my bone health was back to normal. I am blessed to have been diagnosed despite the huge lifestyle changes I needed to make.

Food Intolerance Vs Food Allergy

The umbrella term that includes both food intolerance and food allergy is FOOD HYPERSENSITIVITY.

The FOUR main differences are:

1. NATURE OF THE REACTION

Allergy is a reaction of the immune system.

An allergy is immunoglobulin E (IgE) mediated, which means the immune system will release this antibody to protect the body from the food allergen. Along with this IgE response, a hormone called Histamine is released, called the Histamine reaction. Other chemical are also released into the bloodstream and these combined responses inside the body, is what causes the allergic reaction.

An intolerance is the inability for your gut to digest the food properly and there is no IgE response by the body.

2. SEVERITY OF THE REACTION

An allergy is much more SERIOUS in nature; can lead to an immediate emergency visit to the hospital and/or even death. The most severe allergic reaction is anaphylaxis — a life-threatening whole-body allergic reaction that can impair your breathing, cause a dramatic drop in your blood pressure and affect your heart rate.

On the other hand, an intolerance usually causes many symptoms in a person, but the effects are not dangerous.

3. REACTION TIME

reaction-time-allergy-vs-intolerance

An allergic reaction is IMMEDIATE and that is how an anaphylaxis reaction can be fatal if not treated promptly with an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline).

Food intolerance response can happen up to 48 hours later, which makes it very difficult to pin point.

4. QUANTITY OF FOOD

Depending on the type of food intolerance you have, you may be able to eat small amounts of problem foods without a reaction.

By contrast, if you have a true food allergy, even a tiny amount of food may trigger an allergic reaction.

Risk Factors For Food Allergies

Family history

If your family has a history of food allergies, asthma, eczema, hives or allergies such as hay fever there is a higher risk.

Other allergies.

If you’re already allergic to one food or even have another type of allergy like allergy to pollen, you may be at increased risk of becoming allergic to another type of food.

Age

Food allergies are more common in children, especially toddlers and infants because their digestive system is less developed and mature.

Asthma

asthma-risk-factor-allergy

Asthma and food allergy commonly occur together and symptoms for both are more likely to be severe.

Gender

Studies have shown that women may be more susceptible to food hypersensitivities.

Supporting Studies Regarding Risk Factors

1. A study showed the importance of family history, with the likelihood of developing a food allergy: (1)

– Males and adolescents with a history of early onset eczema (before age 1) had a higher risk of food allergy.

– The risk of food allergy increased by 2-fold in adolescents who had a single-family member with a history of any allergic disease, and increased by over 4-fold with 2 or more allergic family members.

2. A study with over 2000 children in the UK, showed that: (2)

– For IgE mediated food allergy, eczema and rhinitis (hay fever) increased the risk;

– Non IgE mediated food intolerance this was not found. There is mixed evidence between this study and others, that having a dog in the house during the 1st 5 years of a child’s life, may be related to developing food intolerance but these finding are inconclusive.

– A healthy eating pattern, which included home cooked healthy meals and not restaurant food, was found to be protective for both types of food hypersensitivities.

3. A study showed that food hypersensitivities: (3)

-Occur more frequently in females after puberty.

– Females suffer more than males from food allergy, food-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis and histamine intolerance. (I’ll explain what these are in the “Types of Allergy” section).

-Gastric acid suppression medication for heartburn, acid reflex and abdominal pain have been shown to increase the chances of food intolerance, and women tend to take more of these medications during pregnancy.

Food Intolerance – Is there a cause?

Unlike food allergies which are more understood, in terms of their risk factors, internal biological reaction in the body and possible consequences, food intolerance is not as clearly understood and definitely hard to predict and diagnose.

It is unfortunate because statistics show that the number of people who suffer from food intolerance is increasing, and the symptoms do affect health and daily living.

Food sensitivity, which is poorly understood and may be associated with increased levels of antibodies that are reactive to that food.

Food intolerance, is when you lack a certain enzyme to digest that food, and therefore it causes a digestive reaction.

A good example of a food intolerance is lactose intolerance. This is caused by a deficiency of the enzyme that breaks down milk sugar in the intestines. This is not an allergy.

Is Leaky Gut a Risk Factor?

All I can say ladies is be very careful about what you read about this claim. There are several sites claiming that the leaky gut syndrome would be responsible for food intolerance.

It says that inflammation in the lining of the intestines results in the breakdown of the gut barrier, and that is how food particles, bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream through these defective junctions. This can cause bloating, gas, cramps, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), as well as fatigue, food sensitivities, joint pain, moodiness, irritability, sleeplessness, autism, and skin problems like eczema and psoriasis.

Well according to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, this claim about the leaky gut syndrome has no supporting evidence and it would be even dangerous to follow the fad diets that claim they can “cure” your problem.(4)

Types of Food Allergies

Pollen-food allergy syndrome

Also known as oral allergy syndrome, because it makes the person react to certain foods, including some fruits, vegetable, nuts and spices.

People who are at risk for this are those with hay fever.

The allergic reaction can cause the mouth to tingle or itch or it can much more serious, causing swelling of the throat or even anaphylaxis. It has been seen that cooking these pollen-food allergens, may decrease the severity of the symptoms.

Exercise-induced food allergy

Eating certain foods may cause some people to feel itchy and lightheaded soon after starting to exercise.

Again, more serious cases also exist where reactions can range from hives to anaphylaxis. It can help by not eating these foods for a few hours before exercising or avoiding them completely.

Celiac Disease

Is not a typical allergy as I mentioned before. It is an autoimmune disorder that attacks your intestines.

Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families and can develop at any age.

Today, there is a blood test that can confirm the presence of a specific antibody that is responsible for this autoimmune disorder. If present, this means that you have a predisposition to develop celiac disease.

If positive, then a biopsy of the intestines is required to confirm the disease.

Food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES)

A severe gastrointestinal reaction that generally occurs two to six hours after consuming milk, soy, certain grains and some other solid foods. It mostly occurs in young infants who are being exposed to these foods for the first time or who are being weaned. FPIES often involves repetitive vomiting and can lead to dehydration. FPIES is a medical emergency that should be treated with IV rehydration.

Food Inducing Allergic Reactions

 

Allergy-Do-not-eat-top-8There are over 170 foods that can cause allergic reactions, but the “popular 8” cause 90% of reactions in people with allergies.

The Top Eight (8)

• Cow’s milk

• Eggs

• Fish

• Peanuts

• Shellfish

• Soy

• Tree nuts

• Wheat

Symptoms of Food Allergies

Coughing-allergy-symptoms

Symptoms of an allergic reaction may involve the skin, the gastrointestinal tract, the cardiovascular system and the respiratory tract. They can surface in one or more of the following ways:

  • Vomiting and/or stomach cramps
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Repetitive cough
  • Shock or circulatory collapse
  • Tight, hoarse throat; trouble swallowing
  • Swelling of the tongue, affecting the ability to talk or breathe
  • Weak pulse
  • Pale or blue coloring of skin
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Hives

Symptoms of Food Intolerance

Belly issues - pain, nausea

  • Acne
  • Brain fog
  • Eczema
  • Dry and itchy skin
  • Bloated stomach after eating
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Reflux
  • Migraines
  • Diarrhea
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dark circles under eyes

Diagnosis

1. Food Allergy

When a food allergy is suspected, typically you should take a skin-prick test and a blood test followed by a food challenge test if an of these are positive.

Skin-prick test – the allergen suspected food is scratched into the skin to see if it develops a skin reaction.

Blood test which measures the levels of IgEs — that is, antibodies to the food.

Food Challenge – you are monitored while you ingest increasing quantities of the food allergen to see if you show any signs of a reaction. In the case of an anaphylaxis reaction, health professionals will be ready with epinephrine.

IMPORTANT: You can not by “mildly” allergic even if your reaction is not severe. This is because there is just no way to tell what may happen with the next reaction, which can change each time you ingest the food allergen.

2. Food Intolerance

Elimination-diet-food-intolerance

The best way is to perform an elimination diet which is pretty much trial and error of re-integrating foods into your diet, after having eliminated them all for 3 weeks. After 3 weeks, you eat a possible allergen over a period of 1 day, and then you return to the elimination diet for 3 days to see if you feel a reaction. If no reaction, you then introduce the next possible allergen and repeat. This can take up to 2 months, depending on how many allergens you test. You need to be well-disciplined and very well-prepared to adhere do the elimination diet for so long. It is the best way to really learn a lot about your body.

Just being aware that some allergies can develop later on in life, that some are genetic (Celiac disease), that their are risk factors and that the severity of your reaction can change over time, are all important to know for yourself, your children and other loved ones.

There are many hormone-based diets out there because all foods are known to impact levels of hormones, and this is without having any food allergies and/or food intolerance. Add an intolerance to food in the mix, especially one that you are not aware of, and therefore not managing, you are throwing your body into an even bigger havoc.

Not diagnosing and managing an allergy or intolerance will cause huge hormone imbalances in your body, as your digestive system struggles to digest this food that it lacks the enzyme to digest or has high levels of antibodies and histamine. Women are also more suspectable to histamine intolerance which is discussed here.

If you have an allergy, depending on your age, you are more than likely to be already aware of what the allergy is. But if you have constant symptoms of low energy, headaches, runny noise, acne etc, and you have explored all other options but food allergies, it is probably worth the time and effort to determine if you have a food intolerance. You will not regret it; even if it means having to minimize a food that you really like, it doesn’t mean you have to eliminate it completely.

Trust me, in my case, gluten is found in so many things, from pasta, pizza, sauces and toppings, desserts and more. I thought I would never be able to adapt but you will be amazed how you can, especially when you feel overwhelmingly better and your quality of life is increased.

Please send your comments and personal experience my way!

10 thoughts on “Food Intolerance vs Food Allergy – Learn How Different They Really Are”

  1. Thanks for clarifying the differences between food intolerance and food allergy. I’m sorry to hear about your celiac disease. It must be difficult for you to go eat out with friends and family as we all know that gluten is everywhere. I did not that female are more likely to experience food sensitivity, man life is hard. I already suffer from cramps and PCOS. 

    What I do now is that I try to cook more at home rather than go out and eat. I am lactose intolerance by the way. And I try to watch that if I am bloated when I eat certain food I try to avoid that food. I find that I am extra bloated when I drink soy milk, but I have no problem with coconut milk. 

    There is a test that you can do for food intolerance and allergy as well. From what I heard it is not just a comfortable procedure.   

    I guess you just have to pay attention to what you eat and pay attention to your body more. 

    Reply
    • Hello Nuttanee,

      Thank you for sharing your personal experience. Not sure if you knew this, but I mentioned in a few of my other posts that I have PCOS as well. So much so, I have amenorrhea and hence, I have been told I am not fertile. Well I just started a pregnancy blog becuase guess what? I am pregnant! Only 7 weeks so praying that all goes well but it is a miracle:)

      Yes eating at home is definitely my preference. I actually have really become accustomed to eating out and it does not bother me anymore if I am unable to eat what others are eating. I still feel bad though when a host wants to cool special items just for me!

      Do you take medications to be able to eat stuff with lactose? Which tests are you referring to? I was actually readin how there are tests being done even with hair analysis. But based on my research, I strongly believe that these are not accurate or legitimate.

      Thank you so much for your comments and for reading my article.

      Reply
  2. This is all such interesting information!  I wish that my mom knew about these types of allergies so she could get better.

    The 8 allergy foods is important to know for people.  I didn’t realize there were so many.  I think I’m allergic to trees, do you think that might be #9 on the list?

    Thanks for sharing!  

    Reply
    • Hello AlyseS,

      Did your mom ever get her allergy diagnosed? What were her symptoms?

      Yes the 8 allergies are definitely the most common and the most potentially dangerous due to severe symptoms. 

      Trees would not fall in the category of food items, so would not be number 9 on the list of top 8 food allergies:) I am sure there is a top 8 for non-food items, which I will actually look into! Great idea!

      Thank you,

      Cynthia

      Reply
  3. Hey,thanks for sharing such a concise article on the difference between food allergy and food tolerance. There are questions that I had that your post clarified for me. Is there any possible treatment for food allergy and what can one do to prevent his or her kids from contracting food allergy or food tolerance during child hood?.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for reading my article and giving me some feedback.

      That is a great question. Yes you can actually try to reduce food allergies in children, by introducing them to the common food allergies when they start eating sold food, which is around 6 months of age. It is recommended to start with eggs and peanuts first which seems to be especially helpful for reducing the risk of babies developing an allergy to these foods. After these 2, you can continue with the other common food allergies. 

      It is also good news that approximately 80% to 90% of egg, milk, wheat, and soy allergies go away by age 5 years. But some allergies like nuts or seafood are more persistent. 

      Thanks again for your questions and hope to see you here again!

      Reply
  4. Hello dear,thanks for sharing this post with us,A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening. In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.Thanks and keep up the good work.

    Reply
    • Hello Wilson,

      I really appreciate your comment. I am also grateful that you decided to read my article on food intolerance vs food allergy.

      Yes, the nature of the reaction between a food allergy and intolerance are completely different. Given food intolerance is not life threatening and is much harder to diagnose, many people suffer silently with them for a long time. I hope this article motivates people to find out what is causing their symptoms.

      I am glad you took away some valuable information from this post and thank you for sharing with me your appreciation for the content.

      Reply
  5. Hello, Thank you so very much for your article on how food tolerance and allergy really are different. Personally I have gained so much knowledge reading your article and would like to share this information first hand. I have learned here that if a food allergy is suspected, you should take a skin-prick test and a blood test followed by a food challenge. Thanks

    Reply
    • Thank you Joy for not only reading my article on food intolerance vs food allergy, but also sharing with me your appreciation for the content. Yes a diagnosis for a food allergy typically involves 3 steps, depending on your doctor. The good thing is that it can be diagnosed much more easily than a food intolerance. 

      I am glad you took away some valuable information from this post.

      Reply

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