The Difference Between Food Allergies and Intolerances

Written by Health Loft
Published on October 17, 2023
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More and more people are experiencing allergic reactions and being diagnosed with food allergies every single day. Food allergies and intolerances can be a complicated issue. That is why it is important to know how to distinguish between these two terms. 

Food allergies can be defined as an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs from the exposure or consumption to a particular food. This means the immune system attacks a food protein that it mistakes as a threat to the body. The most common food allergies across the board are peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, shellfish, fish, eggs and milk. 

A food intolerance just means that your body cannot properly digest something you eat. An example of common intolerances are lactose intolerance or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Both food allergy and food intolerance issues can happen from an early age, or they can develop later in life. Working with a dietitian can give you the confidence and nutrition education you need to move forward with reassurance to have a love for food again.

Common Food Allergy Misconceptions

  1. All food allergies are the same and symptoms are predictable.
    Food allergies are very unpredictable. Many people don’t take them as seriously as they should. People who have food allergies do not always get mild cases such as an itch or a bump. An allergic reaction can come in the form of  hives to vomiting to difficulty breathing and loss of consciousness. If an allergic reaction is severe or includes reactions to several parts of the body, it becomes classified as anaphylaxis and can be life-threatening.
  2. Food allergies only develop when you are a child.
    Another big misconception is food allergies develop only during your childhood and then you have it for the rest of your life. While that may be the most common way to develop a food allergy, you can develop a food allergy at any age, and it can be from a food that you have safely consumed before. Children who develop food allergies in their childhood may outgrow it over time. This is usually the case with allergies to milk, egg, soy, and wheat. The allergies that are harder to outgrow include peanut, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.

Testing for a Food Allergy or Intolerance 

How do I get tested for a food allergy? 
The most common forms of testing when it comes to food allergies is a combination of skin and blood testing. The most popular skin testing is known as the scratch test. This is where the doctor will put a form of the allergen on either your forearm or back for 15 minutes to see if any redness, itching or welts come about. If the test shows up positive for redness, itching or welts the allergist will do a blood test to confirm if you have that specific allergy. A small blood sample is collected to examine the number IgE antibodies found in your blood for specific foods. If this is still unclear, the doctor will have you complete a food challenge. This consists of gradually increasing the consumption of the possible allergen while the doctor closely watches for signs and symptoms of an allergy. 

Where do I get tested for a food allergy? 
If you or your child thinks that they might be allergic to one or multiple types of food, it is highly suggested to go see a doctor. Have a conversation with your primary care doctor and talk to them about the next recommended steps. They will most likely refer you to an allergist in the area. An allergist specializes in diagnosing patients with specific allergies as well as asthma. 

Are food allergy tests accurate?
Self- testing has become very popular in the past couple of years, but is it actually effective? We all love not having to make the dreaded trip to the doctors office as well as the convenience to self testing in our own homes. Unfortunately, there are many different variations of the at home allergy test and not all of them produce accurate results. These kits only test for certain antibodies in your blood, so they cannot verify if you have an intolerance or any autoimmune disorder that is preventing you from eating your preferred food. Some tests might require you to send out hair to a testing facility. Once you receive the results back from the kit, it may be difficult to understand what it is saying, and would be beneficial if you spoke to your primary care doctor about what all of it means. Even if the results come back saying that you have an allergy, it is best to confirm the results with your doctor by completing a skin and blood test.

How to care for your Food Allergy or Intolerance

Reading Food Labels
Many people are often confused as to where to look for potential allergens. Although ingredients can be found on the food label, there are several different written forms of allergens. Once you are diagnosed with a food allergy it is suggested that you familiarize yourself with all of the language that the allergen could be written in. An easy way to check for the foods that you are allergic to, is by looking at the packaging section that lists the allergens that are contained or may be contained in the product. If you are unsure about what is in the product, do not hesitate to call the manufacturer to ask them about the ingredients in the product and their manufacturing practices.

Eating a Balanced Diet
Having a balanced diet when you suffer from food allergies can be a challenging task to do, especially if you are allergic to one or more food allergens. Many patients that are affected by food allergens have a significant burden when it comes to food. This is the case because food allergies cause dietary restrictions, fear of accidental ingestion and related risk of severe reactions, as well as a reduced quality of life.
While there is no cure for food allergies, it is important to nutritionally educate yourself so that you can still enjoy foods you love and properly balance your diet. Once you have a confirmed food allergy you should begin to identify what nutrients you are losing from that specific type of food. If you cannot retain those nutrients from a different type of food, you may want to contact a registered dietitian who can work with you to find food options that work for you. This will help to identify hidden sources of allergens in common foods and begin to develop tactics to avoid or prevent allergic reactions so that you can feel confident in eating again.

If you have any more questions or concerns regarding food allergies & intolerances, talk to a Health Loft dietitian in Chicago, IL (virtually via our telehealth platform or in person) by calling us at (312) 374-5399 or by scheduling an appointment online.  For more tips and fun facts to also check out our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages for more articles on nutrition, physical therapy, and exercise! 

Written By Frankie Severyns
Edited By Alexander Franz
Reviewed by Morgan Murdock, RD


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