Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

a field of wheat

One man’s food is another man’s poison. Lucretius 50BC

Do you find yourself avoiding particular foods because of a bad reaction? If so you’re in good company. The number of people who think they have a food allergy or food intolerance is on the increase in the UK.

Food Allergies are On the Rise

According to the BBC Food Programme on Free From Foods, the number of children admitted to hospital with severe reactions to food allergies has risen by 700% since 1990 and 20% of the population in the UK believe they have a food allergy. The British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology estimates that one in seventy children is peanut allergic.

Researchers aren’t sure why cases of food allergy are on the rise but several theories abound, including rising air pollution levels and the fact that we’re too clean and don’t allow our immune systems to develop because we’re always using anti-bacterial products. Vitamin D deficiency can also result in a weakened immune deficiency. You can read more about the theories behind the rise of allergies in my article Hayfever Alert.

Unfortunately, the medical profession remain relatively ignorant when it comes to food intolerance with most GPs having received very little training in the subject. They’re often likely to put your symptoms down to stress and under-diagnose.

A lack of research in the area of food intolerance means it is difficult to make the right diagnosis. Many people are self-diagnosing. While there is a blood test to diagnose a food allergy there is no acceptable diagnostic technique for food intolerance.

The risk of self-diagnosis is that you might cut out various food groups which could result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

What is the Difference between a Food Allergy and a Food Intolerance?

So how can you tell the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?

What is a Food Allergy?

According to the Allergy UK website, ‘An allergic person’s immune system believes allergens to be damaging and so produces a special type of antibody (IgE) to attack the invading material. This leads other blood cells to release further chemicals (including histamine) which together cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Itchy eyes and ears
  • Severe wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sinus problems
  • Sore palate
  • Nettle-like rash.

A food allergy is a serious reaction to a particular food and can be life threatening. It usually happens very quickly and symptoms include rashes and breathing difficulties. It often involves the immune system and can result in anaphylactic shock and even death.

Common foods associated with food allergies include dairy foods, nuts (including peanuts), seeds shellfish, eggs, fish, wheat, soya and some fruits such as citrus and kiwi.

What is a Food Intolerance?

According to Allergy UK food intolerance is much more common. The onset of symptoms is usually slower and may be delayed by many hours after eating the offending food.  The symptoms may also last for many hours, even into the next day.

Allergy UK describes food intolerance as unpleasant symptoms which occur after eating a substance that your body cannot handle because the digestive system does not produce sufficient quantities of a particular enzyme/chemical, which is needed to break down the food and aid digestion.

A food intolerance is less serious than a food allergy and often causes vague, more general symptoms. These may include diarrhoea, cramps, constipation and is often diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS.

Other symptoms associated with food intolerance include:

  • Fatigue
  • Bloating
  • Joint pains
  • Rashes
  • Headaches
  • Hay fever
  • Eczema
  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Depression.

The foods to which intolerances develop tend to be the ones we come into contact with on a regular basis such as wheat and milk. Often people get addicted to the food causing the problem and will crave it and temporarily feel better after eating it. However, once it is removed from their diet they will notice great improvement in health and well being.

How is Food Allergy and Intolerance Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a food allergy is relatively easy. There is the RAST test which measures the amount of immunoglobulin E antibodies (IgE) a person has to a specific substance. There are also ‘skin prick’ tests where a tiny amount of the suspected allergen is placed on the arm and a scratch made on the skin, then any reaction noted.

Private laboratories offer hair tests and blood tests for food intolerances but the jury is still out on how reliable these tests are and if food intolerances can actually be spotted in a blood test.

The most reliable method for diagnosing a food intolerance is the Exclusion Diet. This is best done under the supervision of a doctor, nutritionist or dietician. It involves a diet consisting of a few foods which almost never cause a reaction, such as lamb, rice, bottled water, and then one by one introducing new foods at intervals and monitoring any reactions. If there is no reaction the food can stay in the diet, if there is then it should be removed for a period of time. This method is very thorough but time consuming.

A simpler form of the exclusion diet is to remove a suspect food in the diet for about two weeks. If the symptoms return when the food is reintroduced then it is assumed that the reintroduced food is to blame. This type of exclusion diet works best when there are only a few suspected problem foods.

If you suspect that you may be intolerant to wheat and dairy, you may be interested in reading more about the Free From Food Revolution.

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2 Responses to Food Allergy or Food Intolerance?

  1. Thedoc Toriscrazy May 16, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    “Several theories abound, including … the fact that we’re too clean and don’t allow our immune systems to develop.” In support of this is the fact that peanut allergy rates are skyrocketing in most countries but *not* in Israel. In Israel it is common to feed infants a type of cereal made largely from peanuts! So maybe we are doing more harm than good by shielding our children to the extent that we do. Let your kids play in the dirt and stick things in their mouths; their immune systems will be healthier for it.

    • Angie Macdonald May 16, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

      That’s fascinating that “peanut allergy rates are skyrocketing in most countries but *not* in Israel”. I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing. Looking around my local area, I’m not sure how many parents are getting the message that dirt is good.

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