There is a good chance you know someone who experienced an adverse reaction to food. It could’ve been severe hives after eating a peanut, or something more mild like a rash. You also probably know someone who did food sensitivity testing, whether it was through a practitioner or they ordered it on their own. 

It’s important to be able to distinguish between food allergies, food intolerances and food sensitivities. All of these terms tend to be used interchangeably when, the reality is, they are very different.

Let’s break it down.

Food Allergy

You ate a peanut. Now, your throat is closing and you are having difficulty breathing. This is a food allergy. A food allergy is an elevated immune system response from a food (IgE antibodies). The classic example is what is described above: difficulty breathing, throat closing or something potentially life-threatening. Food allergies can happen throughout the lifespan and even show up in adulthood. Food allergies are estimated to impact 6-8% of children under age 3 and up to 3% of adults. There is no cure for a food allergy, and we are still unsure fully as to what causes them. It is recommended that an individual avoid food allergens, as consumption of even the smallest amount can be life threatening. 

Food Intolerance

You drank some milk. Now, your stomach is hurting and you have a little gas. You might not be allergic to milk, but you might have lactose intolerance. This reaction is not life-threatening. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20% of the population may have some food intolerance. Food intolerances impact how we digest things. For example, with lactose intolerance you have trouble digesting lactose (a milk protein) and that is causing the symptoms you are experiencing. In a lot of cases, various enzymes and cooking mechanisms can help with the digestion of foods you have an intolerance to. For example, instead of completely eliminating dairy, you could consume lactose-free dairy or use a lactase enzyme to help with lactose breakdown. 

Food Sensitivity

Most of the confusion with food revolves around food sensitivities. I often hear from clients that they took an online test that told them which foods to avoid, and it came back with all the foods they typically eat each day. Unlike a food allergy, food sensitivity symptoms can occur immediately or within 72 hours. This is why even the best-kept food journal can make it frustrating to figure out what the triggers are. 

Was it the breakfast I ate today? Was it the dinner from 2 days ago?

Food sensitivities can impact the immune system, but the symptoms are not life-threatening. They can be disruptive and cause joint pain, stomach pain, fatigue, rashes or brain fog. Food sensitivities typically have more to do with the functioning of your gut than the food itself, and the good news is that these reactions can fade with time. As your gut health improves, your food sensitivities can improve as well. Our microbiome and immune systems are in a state of constant change, so there is no need to avoid a food sensitivity for the rest of your life. In fact, focusing on optimizing gut health is the best strategy for improving food sensitivities overall. 

What You Can Do

Many of our clients come to our program stating that they “bloat regardless of what they eat.” They have done food sensitivity tests, elimination diets and everything under the sun to improve their bloat and still feel awful. As they are able to identify the underlying triggers that are beyond food (like low stomach acid, an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in their gut, or poor pancreatic enzymes), their food reactions improve over time and their fear of food improves too! 

There is no need to stay on the hamster wheel of avoiding all food sensitivities forever. You can go one step further by improving your digestive health for the long haul, and then be able to expand your diet to eat freely! 

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