Every time you turn on the news or read a health blog, you’re bombarded with new reasons why gluten is going to kill you, how dairy is the root of all evil, or that soy causes breast cancer.
We’re eager to find a culprit on whom we can chuck the blame for our health problems, aren’t we?
But why is the conversation about food allergies so prominent these days? In large part because it’s a real problem –according to the Food Allergy Research and Education Group, about 15 million Americans have food allergies, and a 2013 study by the CDC found that food allergies among children increased about 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.
There are many theories floating around about why food allergies and intolerances are so rampant – some blame GMOs, others say it’s the way processed foods affect gut health, and still others contend there’s a link between autoimmune conditions and the development of food intolerances.
Allergy vs. Intolerance
The topic becomes even more confusing when we consider the allergies vs. intolerance concept. For instance, if you get a stomach cramp every time you eat something with wheat in it, do you have a gluten intolerance – or could it be as something as serious as celiac disease?
The lines indeed get blurred, especially when tolerance for some foods (wheat, for instance), seems to be a continuum: some people can handle a little of it, some can handle a moderate amount, and some people can’t handle any at all.
So how do you know if it’s an allergy or an intolerance?
Let’s take a look at the main differences:
- Speed of symptoms. According to FARE, in most cases (we stress “most cases” because this isn’t true for everyone), symptoms of a food allergy come on quickly after you consume the “offender” food. With an intolerance, you may notice a gradual inability to handle that food, or that your symptoms get worse the more of that food you consume.
- The histamine response. An allergic reaction occurs when the body releases histamine in order to combat what it perceives to be a “foreign invader” that has entered your body (when in reality it’s just the food you’re allergic to). According to the Cleveland Clinic, if this histamine is released in the ears, nose, or throat, you might have symptoms like trouble breathing, difficulty swallowing, or itchy nose and mouth. Histamine released in the skin can causes rashes or hives, while histamine released in the digestive tract can trigger diarreah, stomach pains, and vomiting.
- Consistency. In general, foods that trigger an allergic response will trigger one every single time. Intolerances, on the other hand, may be hard to pin down because they only cause symptoms every now and then – or the symptoms are related to the the amount of the offender food you’ve ingested.
Diagnose it, Do Your Homework, and Treat it
The best way to determine if you have a food allergy or intolerance is to have a full allergy panel test done, or ask for the specific test associated with the food you suspect may be causing problems. However, even these types of assessments can be fallable, so it’s also wise to start tracking your eating with a food diary. Record how you feel after eating certain foods, and see if you can spot any patterns. An elimination diet – where you remove one food or food group from your diet until you’re symptom-free – is the best way to determine on your own what might be causing the problem.
With food allergies, just because you experience minor symptoms 10 times in a row doesn’t mean the 11th time won’t require a visit to the hospital. Carry an epi-pen with you or a suppy of Benadryl for emergencies – and be smart when you eat out or are exposed to foods you didn’t prepare yourself.
Food intolerances can sometimes be outgrown, but research suggests if you’re sensitive to one type of food, you’re probably more likely to have or develop problems with the other top “offender” foods: gluten, shellfish, nuts, fish, eggs, peanuts, dairy, and soy.
Treatment for food allergies and intolerances is to simply avoid the problem food – and to make sure you’re prepared if you’re accidentally exposed to it.